F. Bruce Lamb
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1971
ISBN # 0-395-19918-2.
205 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
September 2005

In 1891 14 year old Manuel Cordova Rios was kidnapped by a group of primitive natives living a stone-age life in the jungles of Peru. He had been carefully picked from a group of rubber cutters (who were all killed) and taken to the village to be groomed to become their next chief.

For seven years he lived with the tribe, was carefully trained in the manner of special communication needed to be a good chief – how to use and control mind-altering substances believed to provide special knowledge to the user.

More than 60 years later the well-known and respected Manuel Rios tells his story and F. Bruce Lamb records it. It is a gripping tale, one I could hardly put down, of this totally “other” world, almost unearthly, in which most of us would have a difficulty time surviving much less rising to meet the expectations of becoming the next chief.

I simply loved the book. What intrigued me the most was trying to move as much as I could into this other world in which the natives lived. They had a completely different metaphysics and epistemology than we. They had their own myths of the origins of human life, the nature of transcendental beings, the origin of the universe itself. They knew their world much more with the senses of touch, smell and hearing than we, with conceptual knowledge being less important that raw sense data. And, of course, they saw the judicious use of hallucinatory drugs as a path to advancement in wisdom.

What was particularly fascinating about this latter aspect of their lives is that while the primary plant involved, ayahuasca, has many of the same chemicals as LSD, they approached it with enormous respect, detailed rituals of careful and proper preparation, including fasting, purging and readying the body in many ways, and used it under the guidance of a spiritual leader to achieve certain purposes of enlightenment. It was all so different that a Hunter Thompson account of gobbling hands full of assorted pills while hurtling down the highway in a car headed for Las Vegas.

Along the way we are treated not only to the growth of Rios toward the goal of becoming the next chief, but to details of life among the tribe, the way they lived, understood the world, their hunting and growing habits and various social institutions such as the family and even “the state” in relation to village governance. We hear of war, both defensive and offensive.

Despite just loving the story I read, I did have serious concern as to how much of the book was fiction and how much reality. This is not true of the main lines of the anthropology of the village reported. As the author says in an afterword, many of the details of the account have later been confirmed by anthropologists in the field and can be found in scholarly literature. I didn’t explore such verification, but I am confident it would essentially be there. I don’t suspect the book of being complete fiction, nor even of there being any significant intent to deceive.

What concerned me was the form of the book. It is told as though we are reading the detailed journals of Rios days by day. An arrow meant to kill him hits a few inches next to his right shoulder into the tree; the jaguar which nearly kills a village hunter has badly torn his right shoulder and four large scrapes of claws are on his back… and so on.

Rios tells this tale, some 200 pages of it, to F. Bruce Lamb, some 60 or more years after the fact. Given how age dims memory, given how retellings bring the collapse of several incidents into just one to illustrate a key point, given how minor adjustments often occur in oral recounts to emphasize this or that detail, or even to get this or that reaction, the nature of the DETAIL of the account just left me very uncomfortable.

Again, I was convinced that the major lines of the story and general picture of life in the village was probably quite accurate. I just remain extremely suspicious of the meticulous narrative detail given the form of recording Lamb used, as though it is a conversation recorded verbatim a day or two after the events. What even enhanced this feeling for me was that in a couple of places Lamb tells us that here, in this paragraph, he is extrapolating some, and not giving a direct report, which suggests that Lamb believes the rest is a nearly verbatim account as given by Rios.

Just to take one example: Rios recounts that a training game for village boys, soon to become responsible for the defense of the village, was to shoot blunted arrows at one another and learning to catch the (nearly spent) arrows out of the air. Okay, I could accept this; I could picture them achieving this fascinating feat at distance from each other, the arrows beginning to lose some of their speed in transit and that the quick eyes and hands of these people whose sense are so trained that they could rely on them in so many ways.

And, as the story continues, I could even imagine this game getting a bit out of hand when some of the traditional drinking parties are going on, and full-grown men play this game with real arrows and ending up with quite a few cuts and wounds.

But it goes too far for me into the land of Robin Hood, when we then hear of the village marksmen, “a great distances” shooting arrows into a target them routinely splitting these arrows down the middle.

That’s just a typical account that went too far for my sense of credulity. It doesn’t do much harm to a sense of village life that I can accept, but it begins to put a greater burden for me as reader to use more discretion as to what I accept and what I don’t.

In sum Rios lived with natives for 7 years, from his 14th to his 21st years. Finally, when the old chief has died, and Rios has shown the villagers how to cut rubber and to have traded that rubber for them to obtain guns, which the village wanted for greater protection, and when the village finally decides to become offensive in the use of the guns – Rios sees the handwriting on the wall, and he cuts out to return home.

Despite my quibbles with the form and some of the details of the writing, this is a great read, and I think I learned a lot deal about the likely form of life within the Peruvian jungles in the early part of the 20th century.

Perhaps what I like best about the book is the trip (real or imaginary or in-between, no matter) into a very different world view. I loved to see the logic of a world view develop and unfold, see how their creation and origin myths impact life in the village day by day; to see the logic of everyday life, flowing from these larger considerations, and yet have those key ur-myths be so very different from our own, and yet fairly logically accounting for the world in which they lived.

That was magnificently well done, and I relished living in that world for a while, yet delighted I was only having to live it in imagination and logic and not in the real flesh and blood world of everydayness. I would probably have either been a great burden for the village to take care of or would have died inside a month.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu