quinta-feira, 23 de janeiro de 2014

WHAT'S SO FUNNY LAUGHING BOY? - buffalomedicine


          A few years ago I was sitting in a coffee shop in Tucson, Arizona, with poet/novelist Sherman Alexie and several other young Native American authors and scholars.  The conversation had worked around to the classic novel about the Papago struggle with white bureaucracy, Yes is Better than No, by Byrd Baylor.
          Alexie had just finished a signing for his book Reservation Blues during which he thoroughly trashed and humiliated his mostly white audience, with their complicity and approval, it seemed.  The youngsters in the restaurant were all mixed bloods, educated, city bred, and none of them were fluent in a native language.  All the same, they are the spokesmen for their race.
          Without hesitation we had a unanimous opinion about Byrd Baylor’s book and others like it.  Though it is a wonderful read, and admittedly culturally accurate, it should never have been printed.  No Anglo should be allowed to write anything about any Native.  Period.
          I can’t say I was particularly surprised.
          There was a general disparagement of Laughing Boy long before Laguna author Leslie Silko weighed in, saying no white man could pretend to get inside an Indian’s head, understand Native sensibility.  Over the years most of the people I heard criticize the novel hadn’t actually read it.  Much the same thing had happened to James Fennimore Cooper a century before.
Thanks partly to not one, but two satirical articles by Mark Twain, nobody reads Cooper any more, even though his Leatherstocking tales are arguably the foundation of American literature.  It hardly matters that Mark Twain exaggerated—even lied outright—for comic effect.  Even before Silko’s unkind assessment, Laughing Boy had been dismissed as romantic balderdash.
The background of neither the author, Oliver La Farge, nor of the gestation of the book itself are particularly reassuring.  La Farge came from a long line of Eastern Brahmins, the Groton and Yale crowd, family full of painters, writers, architects and politicians.  Lots of money and prestige.  Oliver was born in 1901, a child of the century.
          His advanced college work was in archaeology and he went on several digs to Central America, publishing his findings.  His older brother was a successful writer and Oliver toyed with the idea of becoming an author himself.  In the late twenties, with his personal and professional lives both in serious trouble, he found himself in the Southwest—a totally alien environment for a cultured Easterner.
It was not love at first sight.  Even the sky and landscape of the Southwest oppressed his senses.  He hated the space, the dirt, the people, even the light.  It wasn’t long, however, before he fell under the charm of the traditional Navajos.  Keep in mind this was the Twenties and most of the relatively small Navajo population lived in extreme isolation, barely touched by Anglo civilization.
As John Nichols would do in Taos half a century later, La Farge absorbed the local culture like a dry sponge, fulfilling his own needs in the process.  A brilliant mind, in just the right situation, is able to process outside material in a very amazing way.  I have insisted for years that in a very real sense the Navajo people are the authors of Laughing Boy as much as La Farge.
After the prestige of winning the Pulitzer Prize for 1929, La Farge published two more novels that are practically unreadable.  One about pirates in New England and another about politics in a mythical Central American country.  They are both downright embarrassing.  A sequel to Laughing Boy called The Enemy Gods was a great deal better.
His only other successful fiction, in my opinion, were some short stories set in Indian Country.  After that he reverted to journalism for the rest of his life.  Because of Laughing Boy he was forever an ‘expert’ on Native Americans, but he used his status to improve Indian affairs for the rest of his life.

Oliver La Farge, when he set out to write Laughing Boy, was faced with a major problem.  The only really successful novel dealing with American Indian life up to that point was Helen Hunt Jackson’s romantic Ramona, nearly half a century earlier.  Set in California, Jackson’s book didn’t really have much ethnic material in it at all.  La Farge wanted to write a culturally significant novel—it was traditional Navajo life that enchanted him after all—while crafting a story that was acceptable to the Anglo audience.
Winning the Pulitzer Prize against heavy competition (Hemingway for one) is proof enough of his success.  While the novel is accused of being overly romantic, it is also accused of being unabashedly tragic.  The romance between Laughing Boy and Slim Girl was doomed from the beginning.
The significant sensibility of the novel, for me, is its politically incorrect indictment of Anglo society’s corruption of the Navajos and their traditional way of life.  Money greed, alcohol, sex-for-hire, corrupt bureaucrats and ungodly missionaries all take their toll.  I always felt that in the end Laughing Boy himself survives the tragedy of his age pretty well.
The book was written in the Twenties, but set at the turn of the century and I think that creates some problem for the modern reader unless the time frame is kept firmly in mind.  The one charge that can’t be leveled at the book is that it is culturally inaccurate.  If anything, there is way too much information for the average reader to process.
A single sentence in the opening chapter will illustrate my point.  Laughing Boy, a very traditional young man, has ridden horseback some distance (a hundred miles) to attend a Squaw Dance—the popular name for the Enemy Way ceremony.  A stranger asks, “Did you hear about Red Goat?  His wives put his saddle outside the door, they say.”
The plural ‘wives’ indicates that Navajos at the time practiced polygamy, often marrying sisters.  Being matrilineal and matrilocal, the house belonged to the women so they could kick the man out if they wished.  To put his saddle outside was the signal for him to ride off.  The traditional divorce.  Finally, the tag ‘they say’ is a Navajo linguistic form called the ‘reportative’ mode.  Also translated as ‘it is said’, the phrase indicates that the speaker does not have first hand knowledge, but is repeating something he heard—a very specific disclaimer that would be handy in English.
Does all this matter to the casual reader?  Perhaps not.  But my Navajo students at Fort Wingate in the Sixties absolutely devoured the book and loved references that had hidden cultural meaning.  The book is full of them.  There are over two hundred Navajo words in the novel; many are place names, of course, but some are culturally significant.
Slim Girl’s first word to Laughing Boy is the greeting ‘Ahalani’.  It is a now archaic word that indicates a strong tie between individuals who have not seen each other in a long time.  A term of love, almost.  A man might greet his mother that way after an absence of months.  For Slim Girl to use it as she does takes Laughing Boy’s breath away.
Most of what she does is bold and alien to the young man, but not really out of character for her.  Individuality is very strong among the Navajo, and she has been altered—corrupted I suppose—by her contacts with white people in a Reservation bordertown known as Los Palos (The Sticks, in Spanish).
At the Squaw Dance there is a very funny scene where Laughing Boy teases a tourist, calling him ‘brother-in-law’ in Navajo, which is a bit nasty.  The tourist makes him sick with a big cigar.  But it is Slim Girl who captures his attention.
          She teases him, insults him, embarrasses him and enchants him, taking him home with her when the ceremony, the races, the wrestling matches and the feasting are all over.  In all fairness, Slim Girl tries very hard to be a good wife.  She has to learn to weave, which is no small feat.  She learns to cook traditionally and many other things.  Sadly, she teaches Laughing Boy to like the taste and effect of whiskey.
It is a wonderful book with lots of meat and many surprises, but my favorite sequence is in chapter 14.  The couple is returning to town with friends after a visit to the back country.  They stop at the trading post of a man known as Narrow Nose—the worst kind of trader.  As the chapter unfolds, it becomes obvious that the Navajos are playing a game.  And, be it noted, are very sportsmanlike about it.
For one thing, they all talk ‘baby-talk Navajo’ so the trader will be able to understand them.  They throw out a few small lies that should be warnings to the man if he has wit enough to catch them, which he doesn’t.  In the first place, he should have recognized Laughing Boy’s silver design.  At that time silverwork was as regional as rug designs.
Laughing Boy says he has just married and he’s taking his bride to his mother’s home—which is backwards.  Dangling his silver-mounted bridle as a lure the Indians manage to get coffee, crackers and fruit out of the stingy trader before they get tired of the game and ride off.
Sometimes the symbolism is less than subtle, as in this description of Slim Girl, dressed for town in Anglo clothes: “…high laced shoes, an outmoded, ill-fitting dress, high to the neck, long-sleeved, dowdy, the inevitable uniform of the school-trained Indian.  It was a poor exchange for barbaric velveteen and calico, gay blanket and heavy silver.”  And white culture and conformity fit her as poorly as white clothing.  But here’s the kicker:  “She had deleted from the formula a number of layers of underclothing; the slack, thin stuff indicated her breasts with curves and shadow; a breath of wind or a quick turn outlined firm stomach, round thigh, and supple movement, very little, but enough.”
So the thin veneer of civilization only emphasizes her charms, it doesn’t cover them, and there is this hint of sexual energy that has always charged relations between races—outward compliance and conventionality are worse than nothing.
Sometimes La Farge decides to strain cultural accuracy for the sake of the story.  There is a whole chapter on how Laughing Boy got his name.  In reality, “Laughing Boy” is one of a number of traditional “baby” names.  When—in the old days—a child was born there was always a good chance it would not live very long.  The infant was given one of a stock of “baby” names temporarily.  After his first laugh he was given a “real” name, known only to the immediate family.  Laughing Boy and Slim Girl exchange “real” names to show their faith and commitment to one another.
As the child grew he would get new names, often based on some character flaw or outstanding characteristic.  A person’s name might change several times in his lifetime.  Many Navajo names indicate relationship—son, older brother, younger brother, sister and the like.  They are the commonest Navajo surnames today—Yazzie, Benally, Begay, Bitsillie and so on.
Inevitably a movie was made from the prize-winning novel.  It starred a couple of Latins who were the biggest box-office of their day.  Ramon Navarro, who had inherited the mantle of Rudolph Valentino, was chosen for the role of Laughing Boy with the exotic Lupe Velez as Slim Girl.  Most of the Navajos, strangely enough, were played by Navajos and at least part of the film was shot on location.
In a conversation once with the famous medicine-man and herbalist, Scott Preston, son of a white trader and one-time Tribal vice-chairman, he told me he had played the role of the film’s almost accidental villain, Red Man.  In the movie credits he is listed as Beligana (white man) a joke he may not have shared with the movie people.
When I was studying film in college Laughing Boy was thought to be a lost movie, but copies have been restored since then and it was shown a few years ago as part of Gallup’s short-lived film festival.  It is interesting, but it lacks the nuance and texture that make the novel such an entertaining read.
If you avoid reading this book because of things you’ve heard, or a sense of political correctness, you will cheat yourself of an enjoyable experience, and a rather decent look at Navajo life a century ago.  The film shows up now and then on the AMC channel.

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