Two reviews of “Upriver”


The linguist Daniel Everett has just reviewed Upriver for the online and print versions of New Scientist.

Everett describes the book as “even-handed and insightful,” and “one of the best books I have read on Amazonian peoples in a long while”—written, he says, with “flair and clarity.”

This is high praise from a scholar whose own recent books, including Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes, and Language: The Cultural Tool have garnered both a wide popular readership and sparked one of the most interesting and fiercely fought debates in modern linguistic theory.  (A 2007 New Yorker profile of Everett and his research lays out many of the insights of his work in the Brazilian Amazon and why it has generated so much controversy among linguists.)

Everett correctly points out that Upriver concerns itself, among other things, with the question of what it means to be “civilized,” both historically and today.  Indeed, an irony central to the book is that the violence that was once so prevalent in Awajún society, and which lives on today in attitudes if not in actual practice, has arguably outfitted the Awajún people to withstand and sometimes prevail over the interventions of a developed world that smugly considers itself more advanced and “civilized” than the indigenous peoples it would happily steamroll into extinction.

As for the broader problem of civilization and violence, one is tempted to ask: How “civilized” is a United States that accepts as inevitable the firearms-related deaths of tens of thousands of people annually based on the pronouncement of a legal document written over two centuries ago at a time when the only firearms to which most people had access were black powder muskets?

There is one aspect of Everett’s review that merits correction, however. He states that [according to Brown] “more than half of all deaths of Awajún men are due to murder, while more than a third of deaths among Awajún women are suicide.”  These percentages should be reversed: the book notes (p. 214) that my small and largely retrospective sample of remembered deaths found that about a third of male deaths were reportedly due to homicide and slightly more than half of the deaths of adolescent and adult women were attributed to suicide.

The book presents those figures as rough percentages based on a total of 134 cause-of-death reports, a tiny sample by the standards of modern demography.  More important still, these data were recorded in 1977-78 and document deaths that stretch back in time to the 1940s. So they do not accurately reflect Awajún circumstances today.

More unsettling than the prevalence of homicide in the distant past, which has numerous parallels in other societies living in what Brian Ferguson and the late Neil Whitehead called the “tribal zone”—that is, the often chaotic interface between indigenous peoples’ heartlands and the expanding state frontier—is the suicide rate.  Suicide, especially among young women, remains a problem in Awajún country to this day, although there is reason for cautious optimism about its trajectory according to some reports.  (A recent UNESCO-sponsored study of suicide in Amazonian societies considers the Awajún case in some detail.  The report, published in Spanish, is downloadable here.)  As Everett notes, suicide threats and attempts are not uncommon in Amazonian societies where women have limited power to influence their husbands, although the Awajún seem to have developed this strategy to an exceptional degree.

The second review appears in the October 24, 2014, edition of the Times Literary Supplement, which unfortunately remains behind a pay-wall for the time being.  The reviewer is John Hemming, a prolific and distinguished historian of the Amazon.

Hemming judges Upriver to be “powerful, moving and entertaining,” an assessment that I’m happy to leave unchallenged.  There is one contextual problem that grates a little, though.  Hemming quotes me as claiming that a village in which I lived was “a breeding ground for sorcery, lechery, and drunkenness.”  In that passage I am not expressing my own opinion but that of a moralistic Awajún teacher who had converted to evangelical Protestantism (p. 135).  In Upriver I take great pains to communicate my admiration and affection for the Awajún among whom I lived even if, like the rest of us, they have their share of flaws.

Anyone who has had a book reviewed in the trade press, even by first-rate thinkers such as these, knows that there are often disconcerting problems of contextualization and emphasis.  Given the current state of publishing, I feel fortunate that Upriver and the ongoing story of the Awajún people are receiving attention in publications of this quality.