Differential Structures

Christopher Burns

‘We both know the reasons.’ The mist was thick outside, turning trees in the park to ghosts, making the city noises hollow, condensing where it touched telephone wires, pavements, glass. It was, Savage speculated, like rain-forest mist. His imagination lifted him out of the room and its enclosed painful scene and into vistas of cloud rolling through cable-thick greenery where strange birds called.

‘Of course,’ Sarah said. And added, almost provocatively, ‘the heart has its reasons’.

‘Is that another allusion?’

She didn’t answer but drew on the cigarette. This was still the time when it was fashionable and mature to smoke, and in such a fashion. The silence was long and accusatory. Savage, feeling it was expected of him, looked out of the window through the weeping glass. This scene must have been played out thousands of times, he thought.

‘There must be precedents for this,’ he said. He made his voice lighter, more conciliatory. She would know its falseness. ‘You should be better than me,’ he said. ‘This kind of thing’s the bedrock of your interests.’

‘You’re the one who said that literature was flippant and that only myth was real.’

Savage spread his hands, deliberately posturing helplessness. She had not finished the first cigarette but she stubbed it out and almost immediately lit another one. Savage watched her with a kind of dazed detachment. He found the sudden appearance of a tip of flame at the end of the gold lighter almost magical. He realised that he had already cut himself off not only from her but from much else everyday life. Almost minute by minute the bonds were being struck open.

‘You’ll be away for years.’ Sarah said.

‘We’re independent people. We’ve each got good jobs. Economically you’ll be fine, socially there can’t be any problem.’

‘But personally?’

‘You’re an attractive woman.’

‘Get myself someone else you mean?’

‘Just think of the experience this will give you.’

‘Meaning what exactly?’

‘Come on, Sarah. You know what I mean. Literature’s your life, or your substitute for it. You’re a born novelist. Maybe not a good one, I can’t tell, but certainly as regards attitude. And willingness to transform every piece of personal life into a few paragraphs of prose. You should thank me.’

‘You bastard,’ she said with feeling.

He smiled.

‘The justifications you can conjure up!’

‘Let’s be reasonable ...’

‘Four years I’ve spent with you, and you talk as you’re a rocket jettisoning a spent fuel tank –’

Not a very good simile. If you’ll forgive a piece of lit. crit.’

‘As if we were all interchangeable, replaceable, the same as each other.’

‘Literature teaches the uniqueness of the individual. Anthropology teaches the lack of it.’

‘Very true,’ she said sarcastically.

There was another pause. Someone in a flat upstairs turned on a tap and water hummed and banged in the pipes. He wondered how the water tasted.

‘I thought I was special,’ she said quietly.

‘Special?’ He took the word and weighed it.

Sarah began a long, comprehensive and reasoned attack on his calling. It was evident that over the years she had built a battery of criticism and she now began to bludgeon him with it. Anthropology was arid, humourless, formulaic, reductionist. It dehumanished its subjects and its practitioners, too, became dehumanished, gradually stripping themselves of the capacity for deep and complex emotional response. In Savage all the weaknesses, all the symptoms were on show.

He noted that although she portrayed herself as a woman wronged she was very capable of producing a sustained and coherent argument. Another thing he noted (wryly) was that she was accusing him with variants of his own accusations to her. Over the years he’d said that literature, her kind of literature (literature with a capital ‘L’), was frivolous, self-indulgent, élitist. That its study was irrelevant and mandarin. That those who studied it were incapable of recognising the true richness of life, preferring instead the rarefied air of artificial heights.

‘Look,’ he said, ‘don’t take it so personally.’

‘Personally? How else can I take it if I don’t take it personally?’

‘This is not an important crisis,’ he said. ‘It won’t alter the history of the world. We both knew it was coming. You would never keep me away from my people just as I would never keep you away from your books. We’ve had some good times together, maybe learned a little from each other, and now it’s time to part. I’ll go away to my tribe; you’ll stay here with your teaching and your writing. That’s all. It happens all the time. It’s natural. Only literature gives it the false depth that you want to drown in.’

She put her hand over her eyes. ‘Christ,’ she said, ‘what we believe is tearing us apart.’

He nodded without thinking. His mind was already far away. When he left the flat he felt exultant, shouting into the mist and hearing his voice vanish among it, as if surrounded by a globe of mystery and silence. He felt as if the world outside this was a distant rumour, possibly not even existing. He slapped his hand against a tree’s grainy bark, looked up into the foliage and water splashed in his eyes. Five minutes later he felt a distant tremor of remorse and stole back through the wet gloom to stand outside the flat again. Sarah stood at the window. She was composed and serene. Perhaps already she was a tragic heroine. He wondered if she could see him. If she could, then she was staring straight through him. Eventually he became bored and, forcing himself not to look, turned and walked away.

Some time later, he was not sure how long, he speculated about Leaf’s body. At first it smelled as strange to him as his must have done to her. Sometimes she smelled of animal skin, or feathers, often of fruit or oil. She oiled her hair at times.

He had become sensitive to the temperature range of the human body. How the feel, the smell differed. How when she came splashing and dripping from the river there was an invisible layer of coolness around the thighs. Even the warmth of her back (normally so steady) declined a little. During lovemaking, the fleshy parts of her became warmer, almost hot, to the touch. It was not that he was unaware of such gradations beforehand, it was merely that their subtlety and complexity of detail had eluded him.

He had begun to think other things, to believe them. For instance, he knew when her period was due. At first he read it in the Moon. Now he sniffed her urine, detecting in it a rich, almost animal tang. He thought this too was a sign.

Their language was simple but of encyclopedic detail. The grammar he had no problem with, but there were innumerable nouns for river (covering its size, colour, speed, depth, navigability, and the richness of the fish that were in it); there were innumerable nouns for tree (itemising its type, the leaves it bore, its height, usefulness, whether it was a group or solitary tree). He knew, for instance, that Leaf’s name was much longer. She was defined as a particular type, shape and size of leaf. To him she was just Leaf.

While moving upriver on increasingly unreliable craft, he had dreamed of the name they would give him. He had sat with other tribes waiting to go deeper into the interior, filled in his days when rainstorms would not stop and his guides became frightened, became bored and distressed when it seemed less and less likely that he would ever make contact, and all the time he dreamed of his name. When, after long waiting and much hardship, he finally contacted them it was only a few days before they gave him a name. It wasn’t the Blue-Eyed One, or Stranger with Hair like the Colour of the Sun, or even Man with the Box that Talks. It was Idiot.

Idiot because he knew nothing of the forest, Idiot because he was ignorant of their ways, Idiot because he never stopped asking stupid, questions, Idiot because left to his own devices he would have died within a couple of days.

But he was tolerated within the tribe. Sometimes they regarded him with amusement. He made errors that were so stupid they had to laugh. They laughed with a strange orchestrated rhythm, almost braying their amusement out. Sometimes they were suspicious of him. Rumours among the trees spoke of the world being eaten away at the edges. This seemed indistinct, beyond imagination, but they were suspicious that it could be real. Their language did not differentiate between the tribe and humanity in general. They were people; everyone else was an unperson. He, the first white man they had seen, especially so.

Leaf studied him as he studied her. His body was odd; its shape and colour were wrong. The hair was wrong. Some had said she coupled with a devil, but he had been able to disprove this by gifts and assistance. Even then his absence would not matter; he was an unperson.

He wondered if she was pregnant.

He knew he would be accused of interference. His defence would be that he had no choice. He knew he should be an observer, a recorder, an outsider; that was all. He knew he’d broken the code. This worried him less and less. An anthropologist’s very presence threw light and shade over the study group. And beyond this every anthropologist entered into the lives of his people to a greater or less degree. Which of them had not helped with medicine? Savage had handed over an expensive knife to Cutter/Wingbeat. It was a knife that caught light and bounced it, that lay like a feather in the hand, that sliced like a razor. Cutter/Wingbeat had stared at it for a while, tested it, and then taken it. ‘But he is still an idiot,’ he had said to Leaf, refusing to be compromised by the gift.

The knife had been necessary. It had at least given him some purchase on the precipice that was Cutter/Wingbeat’s esteem. He hung there refusing to slip.

But he had done more than give out knives, bandage hurt children and demonstrate his radio (a radio that was already rotting in the humidity). He had encouraged, and possibly even sought, a sexual relationship with a member of a tribe that had never before seen one of his kind. If he had not done that they could have become bored with him and left him. Nothing would have been gained. Instead of that, they took him with them. He was gaining insights a mere observer could never have.

Cutter/Wingbeat, his face barred with the blood of urucu, stood with his spear upright. The knife was slipped carefully into the thong of his penis sheath. ‘Bring the idiot with us,’ he said.

The idiot thought that he was being gradually drawn towards the heart of the tribe, falling like a stone towards the place where all its secrets would be plain for him to see. At this holy place he would see the precise and delicate interconnection and function of myth, culture, kinship groups.

He believed this despite knowing that for these Indians a man or woman who could not work was of no value. He was merely a strain on them. They had to feed and tolerate him because it was their custom, as it was their custom with children and the old. But the idiot was neither of these. He had contributed nothing to the group, he was likely to contribute nothing; the knife and the bits of special medicine he performed were of little true value and soon exhausted. Could the knife be remade, could the medicine be brought back to life now the box that held it had been thrown into a swamp?

To support him Leaf had to give to the tribe food which the idiot was supposed to catch. There was no compulsion on her to do this, but it lessened the guilt she felt at his unmanliness. She herself fished as well as any man, wading apparently carelessly into water green as jade and throwing a long spear into it. The spear shuddered as she retrieved it, its flexible length absorbing the twitches of the fat fish transfixed upon its point. The idiot watched her as she collected fish after fish, lifting them off the spear tip and tossing them, still flapping, onto the bank. The breasts with dark round nipples swung and trembled, her skin shone. No emotion showed in her handsome unreadable face.

‘Leaf is beautiful,’ he said to her sister one day. The sister was Song of the Distantbird. Distantbird looked curiously at him.

‘Beautiful,’ he said. Of course he didn’t think this, but he was nevertheless impressed by her stateliness and dignity.

She did not understand. He began to compare her ‘– to a summer’s day’, he said, and giggled.

Cutter/Wingbeat and his brother Peccary/Root were passing by. Peccary/Root became amused by the idiot’s senseless poetry. ‘Tell me about the world of the unpeople,’ he encouraged the idiot.

Cutter/Wingbeat placed his foot between his brother and the idiot.

‘The idiot cannot talk like a person.’ he said. ‘He cannot hunt. He cannot fish. He cannot talk with our tongue. He cannot smell the forest. He cannot hear danger. He sits with women. He could not wear urucu. He cannot join festival. He cannot make the log race. What good is the idiot?’

He spat on the ground and strode away between the huts, vanishing into the scrub at the other side of the dusty clearing. Peccary/Root strode after him.

Leaf, who heard this, began to teach Idiot the ways of the world. How to recognise the different and varying sounds made by animals and birds, which fruits were safe to eat, how to discover grubs and honey, how to spear unseen fish by the subtle almost hidden motions of water. He was hopeless, like a man born too soon, like a creature made without its senses. Only slowly did he understand things, and then only dimly. It was if he peered at the world through a thick mist.

‘And this?’ he asked.

‘Urucu,’ she said. ‘We take its juice to paint our bodies.’

‘It’s the colour of blood.’

He dipped his finger in it. She hissed.

‘Lunatic,’ she said, ‘you are not entitled to wear urucu!’

She taught him how to cross a river. He imagined crocodile and piranha and felt panic rise as the current pushed at him, tugged at him. She taught him how to make a shelter. It fell down and he laughed, at first gently but then stupidly, rolling about on the earth and slapping the dust. She taught him how to shoot a bow. The arrow missed the monkey in the tree and tumbled back, almost striking him.

At none of these was he better than poor, and many times he was so bad he was a hindrance to them all. At the feast of the slain peccary they talked quickly about him lest he hear, then slowly and more openly. He did not seem to hear the taunts.

‘Wives do not have husbands that their sisters feed,’ Cutter/Wingbeat said when Leaf claimed the idiot was her man. The idiot sat and played with the children. One, Noisyfrog, seemed to be his favourite. He spent hours playing with her.

Noisyfrog’s mother objected when she heard him telling tales of the aeroplanes that sometimes droned across the sky. It was a ridiculous story he was telling her daughter. Noisyfrog’s mother hit the tree, the hut, her heart. ‘Your idiot talks without sense,’ she said, hitting her heart with her fist. ‘He does not know that we are here. He does not know that this is now.’

Peccary/Root pointed at his head. ‘All his world is here,’ he said, adding menacingly, ‘He will break us all apart.’

‘Don’t worry,’ Noisyfrog’s mother said to Leaf. ‘You will get a proper husband once he has gone.’

But the idiot showed no sign of going. He continued to try to insinuate himself into the tribe, to spy on them, to take part in things that were not his concern.

‘He will not do what he is supposed to do,’ one of the men said, summing up their dissatisfaction. ‘He wants to do what he is not supposed to do.’

What finally happened was a surprise to everyone.

The young men went into the forest and, over the weeks, cut down buriti palms and shaped the trunks into heavy logs that could with difficulty be carried across the shoulders. These the young men carried around the village, sweating under their weight, stumbling in clouds of dust. They completed the circuit to whoops and yells of encouragement. The chosen women, Leaf and Distantbird and two of their cousins, stood in the centre of the clearing, their faces, breasts and thighs barred with broad thickly-laid stripes of black and red. Feathers of brilliant birds decked their hair. Ornaments of bone and hide hung at their ankles and wrists.

The idiot watched this with obsessive interest. He had even tried to enter the hut in which the women were being decorated. It took the old women a while to chase him away, and even though they chattered monkey-warnings at him he would not move. Finally the oldest one pushed him repeatedly across the clearing, raising her arms after each push and cursing at him with the bared-teeth curse. He smiled at her as if his brains were cut apart.

Then he grabbed a log and insisted on running with it. Everyone was embarrassed and some hid their faces in shame. The old people covered their eyes with their hands, the dishonour was so sharp. Such effrontery could enrage a god. When he dropped the log he sat down, laughed, and struggled with it as if it was nothing but a toy. The warriors made themselves small in case a god split the sky with fire and burst the land apart.

When he had finished with the log he left it where it was, showing it no respect. The men took him to one side to try to stop him from doing anything else foolish, but he flailed his arms and pushed them away.

As if this were not enough, he found the paint and put it on his face and arms and chest, daubing it on with his fingers. They could tell he was idiot enough to be proud of these clumsy smears, done without artistry or tradition.

Worst of all, he was blind to nobility and pride when the young men began to couple with the chosen women, spreading them carefully, entering into union with them as the tribe entered into union with God. He came across the clearing decked out with sacrilege, his eyes crazed with dishonour. Lunatic, unmade, he tried to grab the warriors. They all saw he was the devil, the destroyer of crops, the polluter of fruit. Cutter/Wingbeat threw the knife away as he left its poison.

The devil was among them. He spread his hands. Power crackled and spat within him. He would split the tribe apart, explode it from within as lightning shatters a tree. He took their nobility and honour and tensed his will against it. They could all feel it. It was a huge force, like nothing they had felt before.

The warriors took of the devil and ran with him to the edge of the hunts. He kicked and shouted but they did not dare drop him in case he turned into an animal and ran away. At the edge of the clearing they held him face down so he could not look at the sun. One of the women ran for the wooden clubs they never though they would use but which were kept hidden for a purpose and they clubbed the devil to death between the village and the forest. They thought it would take a devil longer to die.

The ground was polluted, so they had to move, burning the village after them. A year later Leaf came again through the clearing, which the forest had already begun to reclaim. The devil had gone and he was merely an idiot again. His ghost hid behind a tree and would not speak to her, so she left some food for it at the place where it had died. Probably when she was gone it would come out of hiding and eat it in the ungainly, wasteful way that the idiot had.

Not many years after this, the trees were razed and burned off. By then Cutter/Wingbeat and Peccary/Root were dead, shot through the chest and head by rifle bullets. Their bodies were emasculated and thrown into a ditch. Leaf had to become a beggar, living off the charity of superstitious and violent men who hated her tribe and all her people. She haunted a shantytown of corrugated iron and plastic, with a gutter running through the centre that carried sewage and motor oil. Transistors filled the air with tinny distant music. Distantbird, with the mother of Noisyfrog and many others of the tribe, died during the epidemic which killed most of them within a year of contact. Noisyfrog herself had to become a prostitute, selling herself for cigarettes or raw alcohol in a hut to one side of the shantytown.

Sarah, who for years had been writing thin, well-respected novels of academic life, unexpectedly produced a thick, intense and visionary work which (according to the critics) married European naturalism to Latin American fabulism. Its heroine, trapped in the bodies of two women, exists both in a world of literary and academic infighting at an English university, and in a world of tight social structures, bizarre customs and sympathetic magic somewhere in an Amazon rain forest. This was Sarah’s breakthrough into international fame. The novel became a cult and then a boom. Some readers took it more than seriously, others incorporated it into works of their own, students wrote theses on it, the fashionable carried it around with them, one or two even tried to find the hallucinatory magic land but never got there, the film rights were sold.

None of this had any effect whatsoever on the persistent, remorseless and savage destruction of the Indian, which within the next few years would become total.

Nor will this.