Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

Tayo, a young Native American, has been a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II, and the horrors of captivity have almost eroded his will to survive. His return to the Laguna Pueblo reservation only increases his feeling of estrangement and alienation. While other returning soldiers find easy refuge in alcohol and senseless violence, Tayo searches for another kind of comfort and resolution.

Tayo's quest leads him back to the Indian past and its traditions, to beliefs about witchcraft and evil, and to the ancient stories of his people. The search itself becomes a ritual, a curative ceremony that defeats the most virulent of afflictions—despair.

Goodreads Description

I will tell you something about stories,
[he said]
They aren't just entertainment. 
Don't be fooled. 
They are all we have, you see, 
all we have to fight off 
illness and death...

The only cure
I know
is a good ceremony,
that's what she said. 

So begins this remarkable book. It is at its simplest a tale about a young native American survivor of a Japanese death march being cured of his post-traumatic stress by an extended healing ceremony, which puts him back in touch with his roots. Central to the Pueblo belief is the role of stories within the ceremony and by extension within life itself. But the author argues that it is not enough to repeat the old ceremonies and the old stories. 

The first medicine man to attempt to treat Tayo is a traditional one, but he fails - Tayo vomits the medicine. Instead Tayo finds help from two other sources. The first is a traditional medicine man, Betonie, who combines modern artifacts such as calendars and phone books into the ceremonies and is like Tayo of mixed blood. At one time, the ceremonies as they had been performed were enough for the way the world was then. But after the white people came, elements in this world began to shift; and it became necessary to create new ceremonies. I have made changes in the rituals. The people mistrust this greatly, but only the growth keeps the ceremonies strong. The second is a woman, Montano, who is close to nature and shows Tayo the healing plants and ritual offerings to nature, as well as love, which he has not experienced before. 

Tayo's sickness is symbolic of the damage done to the Pueblo people through the theft and destruction of their land by the white man. This damage is particularly to be seen in the war veterans, who briefly had been accepted in white society (while they were in uniform) and had seen a world beyond their reservations. Outsiders in their own land once more they turn to drink and violence to fill the void. The damage to the people runs parallel to the white man's destruction of the land - sacred lands bounded by large barbed wire fences, wild animals that the Pueblo had honoured shot for sport, the uranium mine poisoning the surrounding land.

Tayo's illness and alienation are beautifully described: For a long time he had been white smoke. He did not realize that until he left the hospital, because white smoke had no consciousness of itself. It faded into the white world of their bed sheets and walls; it was sucked away by the words of doctors who tried to talk to the invisible scattered smoke... They saw his outline but they did not realize it was hollow inside.

Tayo's healing is in some ways a more general healing, his ceremony part of a wider ceremony for his people: he cried with the relief he felt at finally seeing the pattern. the way all the stories fit together - the old stories, the war stories, their stories - to become the story that was still being told.  

I loved this book. It is a fine example of magic realism addressing real issues in a profound way and this is something I look for in a book.

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melanie said...

Hi, I really enjoy your blogs and am a great fan of magic realism - from Ovid's Metamorphosis to contemporary authors. One of my stories, Llama Sutra, was aired on Radio 4 last Sunday. It's in the 'magic realist' genre - surrealism erupting into a realist setting. You can still listen to the story for a couple of days on the Radio 4 podcast. I'd love to know your thoughts.

Zoe Brooks said...

Im sorry but I'm in the Czech Republic so cannot get to the BBC. Do you have a website or blog?

Zoe Brooks