Patagonia Dreaming

There are men with a yen—no hobbit in their shire—who as ‘liminotropes’ are irresistibly drawn to the limits of the known. In Europe they expanded the bounds of their reality through Jason and his Argonauts … to Marco Polo …
humboldt-portraitto that liminomanic (?), Alexander von Humboldt, who at the turn of the nineteenth century critically focused his manifold interests on South America, journeying through what was then called New Granada and Peru (today Venezuela, Ecuador, and–of course- Peru) transforming Europe’s perception of the ‘New World.’  To the right, Humboldt is depicted in his latter years, the Ecuadorian volcano, Chimborazo his background, avoiding our eyes with introspection, annotating what I take to be his memoirs–the portrait a metonymy for memory.  His exploits were so huge, and branching in so many directions, that I am tempted to say that Humboldt must be one of the few ambitious men in history who remembered becoming what they dreamed to be (for his exploits, see  The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World ).  What Humboldt himself wrote, remembering what inspired him–and the exemplar that he was–is: “What we glean from travellers’ vivid descriptions has a special charm; whatever is far off and suggestive excites our imagination; such pleasures tempt us far more than anything we may daily experience in the narrow circle of sedentary life.”

Humboldt helped turn the tropism of distances such as his into a trope of the nineteenth century itself, one aspect of so-called ‘Romanticism.’  Below, seemingly dressed for the city–no less somber in his black than Humboldt–Keats is likewise situated in Nature and ignoring our attention, no doubt dreaming of far off things.  Perhaps he is remembering his sonnet, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer (1816):

imgresThen felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Keat’s poem is an extended metaphor for wonder as liminal; it depicts—as in Humboldt’s explorations—the far edge of the new as existing in what was (and still is, in a fading sort of way) the New World.

charlesyoungman2Darwin was not strange to the charms of that New World.  Born1809, he went to Cambridge to study in1828. There, while engaging in such studies and staid pursuits as are proper to the country gentleman, he acquired a passion for Humboldt’s hugely popular account of his travels (Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, During the Year 1799-1804) and radically changed the course of his life by planning to follow in Humboldt’s footsteps. He also read the Romantic poets. And there is no doubt in my mind that ‘liminotropism’ led the bookish, land-bound Darwin to attempt distant escapes eastward by sea, until at last he managed to board the one ship that would take him, the Beagle.  He brought with him all seven massive volumes of Humboldt’s Personal Narrative…. (What Charles Darwin read on the ‘Beagle’).  However, the Beagle’s mission radically redirected Darwin from Humboldt’s ‘footsteps’ shown below:

Humboldt's_1790s_Travelsto absolutely elsewhere, as depicted:

mapThe irony is huge, that by totally failing to follow Humboldt’s actual path (save for the initial sailing south for the trade winds), Darwin went on to craft his theory of evolution.  And he ended up at first, not in lush jungles teeming with tropical life, but—of all places!—barren Patagonia, devoid of everything … as he himself retrospectively comments in his Journal and Remarks, 1832-1836:

In calling up images of the past, I find the plains of Patagonia frequently cross before my eyes: yet these plains are pronounced by all most wretched and useless. They are characterized only by negative possessions; without habitations, without water, without trees, without mountains, they support merely a few dwarf plants. Why then, and the case is not peculiar to myself, have these arid wastes taken so firm possession of the memory? Why have not the still more level, the greener and more fertile Pampas, which are serviceable to mankind, produced an equal impression? I can scarcely analyze these feelings: but it must be partly owing to the free scope given to the imagination. If, as the ancients supposed, the flat earth was surrounded by an impassable breadth of water, or by deserts heated to an intolerable excess, who would not look at these last boundaries to man’s knowledge with deep but ill-defined sensations?

Darwin’s fascination with Patagonia’s “negative possessions”—to me powerfully reminiscent of Keats’ “negative capability”—underscores the ‘romanticism’ that underlay his notion of science as something done by a traveler in a place (in Humboldt’s words) “far off and suggestive,”  And also, as something which can come into its own in retrospect….

What I propose is that, whatever Patagonia patagonia-mapmight be in itself, what Darwin made of it is an extension of the Humboldtian dream become an icon … farther off for Europe, even, than the marvels of Venezuela and Ecuador, and by its very emptiness a kind of screen on which the inheritors of  ‘romantic’ imagination are able to project their dreams….

Edgar Allan Poe dedicated his extraordinary universe-encompassing poem, Eureka, to Humboldt.  And in his Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, surely–to my mind at leastPoe is operating on the assumption that Patagonia is the bound of the known … and beyond it the snowy screen–or screed- of dreams.

Barry Lopez, in his remarkable book, Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, explores, and meditates upon, that other northern limit of our terraqueous globe.

And in Bruce Chatwin’s eponymic work, In Patagonia, fittingly, and quasi-scientifically (as one following Darwin’s trajectory), Chatwin begins his narrative with these words:

In my grandmothers’ dining room there was a glass-fronted cabinet and in that cabinet a piece of skin.  It was a small piece only, but thick and leathery, with strands of coarse, reddish hair.  It was stuck to the card with a rusty pin….
‘What’s that?’
‘A piece of brontosaurus….’
This brontosaurus, I learned, had lived in Patagonia, a country in South America, at the far end of the world.

Stay tuned.  There’s always more to Patagonia….

Digging Old Dirt: Historical Novels and the Vulgar Tongue

My novel, Arauco, begins in Spain Gargantuabefore Cervantes was born, and ends when he was more or less six years old, (roughly fifty two years before the publication of the first volume of Don Quixote).   It is therefore set in Rabelaisian, not Cervantine times, an age when many of the sailors and soldiers recruited (or pressed) to go to the New World were criminal and/or of very low class. These adventurers were by and large illiterate, many unable even to sign their names. Therefore I had absolutely no doubt in my mind when I began to write that—accurately to represent the times—the lowest of vulgarities would have to be reproduced by my “Rabelaisian” pen. And at that point in researching mid sixteenth century Spain I encountered a void…. No problem with the clothing of the era. No problem with the food. No problem with the larger historical “props,” such as—to cite one example—the distinction between a caravel and a nao. Also no real problem with “higher matters”—the religious and intellectual currents of the time, including Catholicism and Humanism. My problem lay in giving voice to the vulgar tongue, for, not only were there no dictionaries as we know them at that time, there was no particular interest in even portraying the “lower” classes” as such, the depiction of their cant and argot lying far beyond even that event horizon….

The irony here, of course, is that Don Quixote is considered by many to be the first modern novel, and that in huge part this has to do with its inbuilt break with–and thematic critique of–the literature of the time … namely the chivalric romances. And much of that huge part is that at long last vulgus–the common man–is given voice by Sancho Panza (and his “paunch lines”).

There’s a wonderful dialogue in the novel, which speaks to the vulgarity of both Sancho and his tongue:

Donquixote“Take care, Sancho, not to chew on both sides, and not to eruct in anybody’s presence.”
“Eruct!” said Sancho; “I don’t know what that means.” 
“To eruct, Sancho,” said Don Quixote, “means to belch, and that is one of the filthiest words in the Spanish language, though a very expressive one; and therefore nice folk have had recourse to the Latin, and instead of belch say eruct, and instead of belches say eructations; and if some do not understand these terms it matters little, for custom will bring them into use in the course of time, so that they will be readily understood; this is the way a language is enriched; custom and the public are all-powerful there.”
“In truth, señor,” said Sancho, “one of the counsels and cautions I mean to bear in mind shall be this, not to belch, for I’m constantly doing it.”
“Eruct, Sancho, not belch,” said Don Quixote.

The conceit of Don Quixote, of course, is that the hero experiences life from a perspective which is not that of life but of literature, and a literature written by the upper class for the upper class at that—not unsurprising in an age when even most priests were illiterate.  And of course the Quixote had it absolutely wrong linguistically … for in lexicography usage is everything; inescapably, the Sanchos of this world determine that, as far outnumbering the Quixotes. The vulgus does not have to read or write, all it has to do is speak and speak, mispronouncing the words of the past in the present to create the words of the future, until with time—as if language were a skeleton–its bones are eroded and rebuilt by numberless agents, like the osteoclasts and osteoblasts which respond, precisely, to usage. So, a new “linguistic skeleton” is created. As in, say, how the structure of Spanish, a ‘romance’ language, evolved from Roman bones … so that the Quixote, scolding Sancho for not being Latinate enough, ironically does so with a language built bit by bit from Latin by a myriad Sanchoses of the past.

The more important point is that Don Quixote had it more fundamentally wrong—all of human life, and almost all human language, happens outside literature.  And until very recently the European vulgus made rare appearances in literature and history (and not at all in the first dictionaries, which–as we know them–began to happen in Europe in the eighteenth century).

The sad, perplexing and thoroughly annoying bottom line is that a historical novelist can do much to flesh out civilizations down into even ancient times, using a great variety of sources.  And the language of the upper classes is largely available as well.  But the vulgar tongue was not recorded until about three centuries ago (at least in Europe).

Some historical novelists choose to “fill in” this blank by inventing early vulgarity.  Bernard Cornwell in his 9th century Saxon Tales–which depict the creation of Englaland–is one of these … as in, for example: “slime coated pieces of human dung,” and “you wall eyed piece of ungrateful toadshit.”  Largely, Cornwell confines his unimaginative imagined vulgarity to the insults that were apparently a mandatory part of warfare in general–and single combat in particular–at the time of his novels.   But Cornwell’s solution did not appeal to me, at all.  What I wanted was the richness and wild inventiveness, the rough and tumble poetry of genuine vulgarity, and I found nothing like it for the time and place of my novel.

I spun my wheels, therefore, until I stumbled across a remaindered copy of Francis Grose’s, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (in the edition depicted below).

Vulgar TonguePublished in England in 1811, it was not the first European effort to compile the vulgar tongue–this fact acknowledged by Grose, who begins his preface by stating that he follows in the footsteps of “the Satirical and Burlesque Dictionary of Monsieur le Roux”  (What Grose loosely cites is the Diccionnaire comique, satirique, critique, burlesque, libre et proverbial, by Philibert-Joseph Leroux, published in 1718 … and for those of you interested in early 18th century French vulgarity–historical novelists or no–here’s the text–Diccionnaire comique…).

For my purposes, The Classical Dictionary concerned itself with vulgar language at the wrong time and in a wrong country.  But as I was writing my novel in English, seeing no better alternative, I took the plunge and, faute de mieux, ended up mining Grose (than whiom, no author has ever been more aptly named!) for the vulgarity in my novel.  And, given the alternatives, I do not regret this anachronism and anatopism.  I might point out in my defense that England and Spain, without exactly sharing the “English” channel, lie not far apart, and have osmotically shared much culture over the centuries–despite recurring enmiity–part of that porous whole now made officially an European Union.   I cite as one example a definiton from Grose: Cacafuego. A sh-te-fire, a furious braggadocio or bully huff–a nickname one of the characters in my novel gives himself.

And I add in self exculpation that I was scrupulous not to take from Grose that which was in any way distinctly British, but to choose such language as stems from  the universal vulgar condition which obtained for many centuries In Europe, having to do with such cultural constants as priests and cutpurses, hangings and beheadings … and of course, human sexuality….

As a passionate logophile and etymologist, I have been dipping into and browsing dictionaries for much of my adult life, and this is the only one I have actually read with great enjoyment, end to absolute end.  It is short of course, as an addendum to “higher” speech, which helps.  And it is highly self referential, the vulgar often defining itself vulgarly, so that for example, “Mother of all Saints” is defined as “the monosyllable.”  This is a self contained underworld of words, which until extremely recently did not see light in print,

Grose is definitely worth dipping into for all you other logophiles interested in digging old dirt.  There are a number of editions available on Amazon, and a kindle edition is offered for free, here: Grose.  To pique your interest, I offer some entries maybe worth your while … to guess at … or look up….

Apple dumplin shop
Blue skin
Cackling farts
Doodle sack
Elbow grease
Grin in a glass case
Hob, or, nob
Irish beauty
Jockum gage
Queer plungers
Rantum scantum
Scotch fiddle
Thorough cough
Urinal of the planets
Vaulting school
Wolf in the breast
Xantippe (only entry for X)
Yellow belly

PS And a last–distantly relevant–aside….  It seems that Don Quixote is the most mispronounced name in literature, the price of being famous absolutely almost everywhere: Don what…?


The Greatest Recorded Earthquake


I was born in Santiago, but my earliest memories date from the years my family spent in Iquique, in the far north of Chile. There, I first attended school. There, I made my first friend, Carlitos. There was created my most vivid early memory….

Our house faced a convent.  Normally, high convent walls concealed nuns of a cloistered order. But in Chile earthquakes are a part of life. And what one does in an earthquake of any magnitude is rush out into the middle of the street…. And so my family did early one morning when our house began to rattle and shake, along with everyone else who lived on that street, including the nuns.  O, the shock to my infant eyes, at the emergence of these secreted sisters!  Not only were the tabernacled beings at last revealed, but out of habit!  In identical white nightdress!  Exposing nothing ordinarily not exposed by non-nuns, but … heads bare, when nuns’ heads never were! AND …  shaved? Or maybe, hair just cropped short … for sudden marvel can lead to loss of detail in the most vivid of young memories….

My point here that in Chile geology is not just looked at and walked upon, it happens to you, shocks you … and ultimately shapes you.  You live with the catastrophic volcanic eruptions that now and then happen, here and there, but even more with earthquake—past, present and pending—for they never really stop. You can expect their shock at any moment. You can be dining and see the lamp over the table begin to tremble … a non-event, unless it escalates….


And this is true along almost all of Chile’s amazing length, for the geology of the country is created by the clash of two tectonic plates, the Nazca subducting under the South American (as depicted at the right). This creeping titanic collision is what created the Andes in the first place, and continues to reshape them. This subduction also created Chile’s volcanoes, and generates its earthquakes.

Below is a depiction of Chile’s earthquakes as circles, diameter indicating severity, color indicating depth.  One notes that earthquakes stop where the Nazca plate ends, so that the extreme south of Chile is relatively free of temblors.  One also notes that earthquake depth is proportional to the distance from the subduction line, which is off the coast.  This makes sense, for the Nazca plate grinds its way down at an angle.

Earthquakes in Chile


MAY 22, 1960

On this date, the greatest earthquake to be recorded occurred in southern Chile, its epicenter 570 kilometers south of Santiago–the city most affected being Valdivia.  The magnitude was 9.5–the largest since estimations of magnitude became possible in the twentieth century.


But the impressive numeral does less justice to this event than the chart to the right, for the seismic energy released summed to 20 percent of all the earthquakes of the 20th century!  (Note the renowned San Francisco earthquake’s share, as the paltriest of wedges.) The release of energy is estimated to have been198 gigatons–the equal of 1000 atom bombs….chile earthquake

There were several foreshocks of magnitude 7 or more (full fledged quakes in themselves), which did considerable damage but, by giving warning–fortunately reduced mortality from collapsing structures.

By far the most damage and loss of life was caused by the tsunami subsequent to the main quake.  The fault displacement occurred about 100 miles offshore, paralleling the coast along a line 560 to 620 miles long, causing a tsunami approximately 80 feet high (24 meters) which struck land along that length.  Below, a photograph of the aftermath at Corral, a harbor near Valdivia….
tsunami:chileBelow is an image of a different location, taken from the air.   Structures not annihilated were slammed by the tidal wave into far locations….
tsunami-damage-chile-sm  But Chile was not the only place affected.Tsunami travel time  The tsunami propagated across the Pacific (as illustrated to the left, with elapsed time and wave intensity depicted). Traveling at over 200 miles per hour (a speed to astonish not just Captain Cook!) the tsunami caused major damage and high mortality at distant locations.  It struck the island of Hawaii (about 6700 miles distant) with a wall of water 35 feet high, bending parking meters to the ground, and destroying Hilo Harbor.

Hilo tsunamiTsunami damage, Honshu, JapanRacing on, Waves 18 ft high slammed into Honshu, Japan,15 hours after the quake (about 10,700 miles away!) destroying 1600 homes and leaving 160 dead or missing.



Apocalyptic destruction such as this–so far exceeding ordinary human scale–is difficult for even the twentieth century to ‘comprehend’ ( etymologically to wrap our arms–or less etymologically, our minds–around).  Now, imagine just such an earthquake and consequent tsunami before there was measurement or history, in the land now called Chile….

The Mapuche (“people of the land” in their language), are the indigenous inhabitants of this violently tectonic place, and in their version of their origin they have a huge serpent, Kaikaifiilu, inundate their land, their ancestors being those who survived by fleeing into the mountains….

No need of an Old Testament God in Chile, for in that land geology is Genesis.


Building an Inca Suspension Bridge

The Inca civilization–which flourished in the essentially treeless altiplano–made do with what it had, achieving astounding mastery over stone and fiber (grass and wool).  Their palaces, as well as the houses of commoners, were built of stone and thatched with grass. Their bridges, like their homes, were constructed of the same materials: stone for the foundations, grass woven into rope for the bridge itself.  In a previous post I included this image of an Inca bridge that has been rebuilt for centuries using ancient methods:
Inca suspension bridge
As a footnote to that entry, here’s a fascinating video about how that same bridge is actually constructed: The bridge at Q’eswachaka

Those interested in the indigenous peoples of the two Americas (including the Mapuche and the Inca) will find much more to enjoy at: The National Museum of the American Indian.


Blog Post for Hugo Campbell Sills

If one imagines a book as a net cast to capture readers, then Hugo is one of the best “netted” by my novel.  Had I known him while writing it, the Mapudungun of Arauco would have been far, far better.  Hugo is a man I admire, not only as a polyglot, a consummate linguist and student of Mapudungun, but also as a defender of that remarkable tongue and, above all, the Mapuche people. It was an honor that he asked to be a guest in his blog, which focuses precisely on these, his passions.  So, what I wrote for Hugo was how–improbable as it seems–I came to write about the Mapuche.  Those who read Spanish can go my post on his blog: Novela histórica de ambientación Mapuche: Arauco, de John Caviglia.  For readers of English I translate that post, as what it covers has not previously appeared in these pages.

How I came to write about the Mapuche.  I am now an admirer, student and friend of the Mapuche, but I did not begin that way. Born of a Chilean father and North American mother, I spent most of my first eight years in Santiago and Iquique, Chile, before coming with my family to the United States. I do not recall if I knew little, or nothing, about the Mapuche then, for I remember nothing about them from these early years.

The photo of two innocents below (taken in 1950) is of myself and my brother, MarioJuanito and Mario, dressed for a festival in Iquique. We represent—I must suppose—a Spaniard (myself) and a Mapuche (Mario). One does not have to be a historian, or an anthropologist, to realize immediately that our costumes have almost nothing to do with the clash of cultures that—many years later—I attempted to bring to life in my novel. Rather, we seem modeled after the Hollywood of that era.

My family came to the United States the very year this photo was taken, and for many years thereafter I remained ignorant of the conflict between the invading Spaniards and the indigenous Mapuche which created (and continues to create) the country now called Chile…. I’ve been a gringo for many years, and I continue to be one, but always a Chilean gringo, for the earliest roots are deepest.  Because of that, in my northern life I’ve always been troubled by the fact that my natal land is essentially ignored in the United States—much less known than Mexico, for example, or Colombia (with its drugs and oil), or the Central American countries whose desperate citizens “migrate” to the United States. Likewise here, where many know about Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro—as well as something about the “conquests” of Mexico and Peru—very few have heard about Pedro de Valdivia, and a tiny percentage of these knows that the army of this “conquistador” was annihilated by the Mapuche at the battle of Tucapel.   Neither do they know that this battle began a three hundred year war, and that until the latter 19th century the Bio Bio river was the southern boundary of Chile. Once I learned about this as an adult, our northern ignorance seemed to me both incredible and lamentable, especially if one contrasts the defeat of Valdivia with the lightning victories of Cortés and Pizarro. And so it is that when the time came for me to write a novel I decided to narrate the Spanish invasion of the land of the Mapuche. In English, there are a few books which feature (or include) Valdivia and Inés de Suárez, but not a single historical novel, and so I set about to write the first. I read everything there was (this was before the internet), and the more I read the more I was fascinated by the Mapuche side of the conflict.  Eventually I felt myself compelled to narrate this story from both points of view—Spanish and Mapuche—attempting to recreate faithfully the world and perspective of both peoples.

Recreating the Spanish invasion required much research and much time (thank God for the Library of Congress!), but in the end it was not difficult. For example, the novel begins in Sevilla, from where all the Spanish fleets sailed to the Indies, and there is much written about that city at that time. There are also many images, like the one below. Sevilla_siglo_XVI

Equally, there are enormous quantities of information that allow us to understand the Spaniards of the sixteenth century: Catholicism
(basis of
their world view), their customs and daily life, their food, their hygiene (or lack thereof, from our perspective), etc. And images of all this abound.

More, there are recreations of the invaders…. In Bradenton, Florida, where Hernán de Soto began his catastrophic odyssey, there is a national monument which reconstructs the dwellings erected by the Spaniards where they landed, examples of the clothing they wore, and—among many other Juan, conquistadorthings—their arms (spears, swords, crossbows, an arquebus that they fire for tourists), and of course, the metal that they wore. In the photo, I am the “conquistador” on the right.

Also, there is much written about the principal Spanish characters: Valdivia himself, Inés de Suárez and—among many others—Juan de Cardeña, the secretary to Valdivia whom I chose as an important perspective on the action.

Despite all this information there are many voids in what is documented … so much, and of so many kinds, that I will limit myself to one example–the use of dogs of war by the Spanish.War dogsThere is an entire book (at once grotesque, horrific and fascinating) which dedicates itself to this—Dogs of Conquest, by John Grier Varner—and at the left I offer an illustration of what these armored dogs were like. The use of such dogs by Columbus, Balboa and many others has been thoroughly attested to and illustrated—in the Caribbean, in Mexico, in Central America—in war, to “hunt” humans, and in torture … but never (to my knowledge) against the Mapuche. Nonetheless, in my novel I presuppose that they were taken to Chile, simply because the use of war dogs by the Spanish was so ubiquitous in this “new world.”

Recreating 16th century Mapuche was far more difficult. First, because as they had no writing, the encounter between these two cultures was documented by their antagonists—the Spanish—who depicted them through lenses distorted by presupposition and deep prejudice. Nonetheless, much of what it was to be Mapuche “antes de la peluca y la casaca” (“before the wig and cassock,” in the words of Pablo Neruda) lives on essentially unchanged outside of books. Mapu, the earth itself—which the Mapuche took into their name, as people of the earth—still grows and blooms essentially unchanged, although in endangered refugia.

NahuelbutaThe virgin forest of the Mapuche can yet be admired in a few places like Nahuelbuta, with its enormous peweñ, its coihues, its bamboos, a landscape like no other on earth.

Lago y montaña


Not to mention the lakes, and the volcanos, sacred to the Mapuche.


Building rukaAlso, much Mapuche culture survives, little changed by the centuries—one example is the traditional dwelling, the ruka, which is still being built, as in the photo on the right, which I took near Lake Budi.  And the rich tradition of the Mapuche also lives on—the ngillatun and  machitun being  examples of this. For these traditional ceremonies I drew on anthropological resources. Of the many, one that stands out is Araucanian Child Life and its Cultural Background, by M. Inez Hilge. Shamans of the Foye Tree, by Ana Mariella Bacigalupo, is another.

I also was fortunate enough to be present at a celebration of wetripantu (the Mapuche New Year)—with a ruka, the machi and her kultrun, trutrukas, the foye tree, and dancing Mapuche … captured in the photos below, the second showing the machi from closer.

Dancing Mapuche
Machi ceremony:1








The essence of Mapuche culture is still alive, but of course modern elements have insinuated themselves into the picture—for example (besides the obvious: watches, glasses, shoes, modern dress, modern cloth and modern dyes, and etc.) we notice that the trutruka are tipped with a cow’s horn (an animal introduced by the Spanish). And the machi is dressed in “modern” style, compared to these three machi photographed many years before, themselves more “modern” than the aboriginal Mapuche machi.


Returning to 16th century Mapuche culture involves in many cases, a peeling away of layers of modernity superimposed over tradition.

Palin For example the Mapuche I photographed while  playing their ancient game, palin, by Lake Icalma are barefoot and speaking Mapudungun, but dressed in contemporary clothing.

Another example of this would be Mapuche food. Cocina Mapuche, by Amanda Ibacache, includes many ingredients introduced by the Spanish—wheat, lemons, apples, rice, lentils, as well as beef, horsemeat and mutton (among others)—but there are recipes that without a doubt approximate what the Mapuche ate three centuries ago, based on potatoes, corn, native mushrooms, chicken, llama and etcetera….

But, in the end, there is no Mapuche cultural element that even begins to equal the importance of their language, Mapudungun. Years ago, when I began to research Arauco, I hardly knew a word. So I acquired all the books I 1962 - Moesbach - Gramáticacould, and read them. The Mapudungun of my novel ended up being based largely on two: Idioma Mapuche, by Father Ernesto de Moesbach, and Diccionario Araucano, by Fray Félix José de Augusta. But I must confess that, as there are so many orthographies of Mapudungun, I decided to create my own simplified version, beginning by eliminating Spanish orthography as much as possible, and making the language more immediately accessible to readers of English (presumed to know nothing about the Mapuche and their language).

Arauco is the first novel in English to narrate the incredible story of the invasion of the mapu of Mapuche by the Spanish, and the first in any language which gives equal weight to the Mapuche—to their culture, and their historical figures (such as Lautaro and Michimalongko), as well as to Mapuche that necessarily had to be invented, because the historians were Spanish, and they named few. The novel ends with the extraordinary victory of the Mapuche at the battle of Tucapel. But, as history has revealed, this victory was not an end, but the beginning of a struggle that still continues….

Thanks, Hugo, for giving me the opportunity of participaing in your blog—a celebration of the Mapuche people and of Mapudungun.

Marichi wew!

Inca vs Mapuche: The Battle at the Maule River, Part 2

Before Inca and Mapuche face off at the Maule River, let us take a moment to reflect on the immense difference in the two cultures….

The Inca worked copper, gold, silver, bronze.  They made buildings out of stones so large, and fashioned so miraculously, that even today there are those who think it the work of gods or aliens.  They farmed an inhospitable land by means of stone terraces so well engineered that they have survived five centuries of wear, war and earthquake.  Their irrigation canals–likewise built of stone–were a hydrological marvel.  Also, although the Inca had no writing, they had quipu like the one portrayed below–that system of colored, knotted string which–interpreted by those so trained–conveyed an immense amount of information.
Inca_QuipuAnd they had chasqui, the messengers that ran in relays, on roads that enabled a message to travel 250 miles a day (about the same as the pony express).  All roads led to Cusco, and from there the sapa Inca–who owned it all–ran it all by decree.  No polity so large has ever been so centrally controlled.

And the sapa Inca, as well as the nobles of his empire (called orejones–big ears–by the Spaniards because they wore immense gold plugs in their earlobes) had what anyone would call extreme wealth: fine clothes made of alpaca, marvelously woven; garments entirely covered with the coruscating feathers of jungle birds; fine ceramics, etc., etc..; and of course, silver and gold–so abundant that it covered the walls of temples–and often beautifully worked into ornament, such as this depiction of their sun god, Inti.
Inca goldIn contrast that could scarcely be starker, the Mapuche lived on their land as extended family groups, in clusters of ruka assembled out of wood and roofed with thatch, like the one below.They had no larger unit that could even be called a village … much less a  city.



They had no engineers, and therefore no stone aqueducts, or roads.  Unlike the Inca nobility, and its wealth, they actually avoided useless accumulation and ostentation, as attracting jealousy and the sorcery it inspired.

Above all the Mapuche, who were–and still are–a fiercely proud people, did not have one person telling everyone what to do (that political version of accumulation).  Instead, they had a working anarchy.  And the way it worked is that every extended family unit looked after its own and defended itself (or attacked, as the case might be).  This meant that of necessity every male Mapuche was born a warrior and trained in martial arts from youth–each choosing the weapon he would specialize in at an early age.  And all males were trained in oratory as well, that arms not be the only recourse.  When larger conflict was required, a messenger carrying an arrow dipped in blood was sent to summon reinforcements.  In extreme necessity, such as the invasion of the Inca, these fleet messengers would have carried bloodied arrows over forest paths into the farthest corners of what the Mapuche call mapu–their land.  Owned by none, it would be defended by all when, sometime around the year 1485, the armies of Tupac Inca Yupanqui, after six years of unfailingly successful conquest, reached the River Maule in what is now central Chile (about 300 kilometers south of present day Santiago).

Tupac-inca-yupanqui-smallWhen Inca and Mapuche joined in definitive battle at the Maule, the spectacle would have been worthy of Cecil B. DeMille.  The sapa Inca himself (Topa–or Tupac–Inca Yupanqui, depicted on the left) would have been borne on a golden, canopied litter, gorgeously dressed in alpaca, gold and feather.  And he  carried a symbolic, gold halberd.  Surrounded by his private guard, he directed the action from the rear, his generals and orejones, in somewhat lesser splendor,commanding squadrons of troops levied from the different corners of the empire, differently dressed and armed, a veritable kaleidoscope of cultures.  As intimidation was a part of conquest, before a battle the Inca army would parade before the enemy  conchs blaring, drums banging….  Inca warriors are depicted to the right, and you will note that they wear helmets and quilted armor.  Also (though inca_warriors1it is difficult to make out in this rendering), their weapon of preference was a club with a star shaped head.  They also employed slings and spears.  Their archers were not Inca, but rather from jungle tribes.

The Mapuche would have put on a loud but less variegated show of their own, trutrukas (a long, wooden horn) blaring, drums pounding.  They wore no armor–and indeed would have been stripped for battle, and barefoot–but they would have painted their bodies, and worn talismanic items such as jaguar heads and the hooves of deer.  They carried shields.  And their weapons were analogous to those of the Inca–bow, sling, club and spear, so that in terms of armament, neither side had a tactical advantage.  Also, Inca and Mapuche tactics were similar in that both initiated with a barrage of stones from slings as well as arrows and hurled lances, followed a mass attack of squadrons of men wielding clubs and spears,

Batalla del MauleAs was usual with the Inca, they sent envoys to the Mapuche, proposing submission rather than war.  For two days they did this, and the Mapuche declined subjugation.  On the third day the Inca attacked with pehaps 20,000 warriors, opposed by a similar number of Mapuche….

No one actually knows how the battle actually unfolded, but we can suppose that as the preliminary show took place Inca priests and Mapuche shamans would have been mutually casting spells at the opposing armies.  As Chilean rivers are generally wide and shallow, fed by snow melt, we shall also suppose a place and a time of year when the Maule can be waded….

For three days, the Inca attacked and the Mapuche defended.  By the end of the third day, chroniclers say, almost all the combatants on both sides who were not dead were wounded.  On the fourth day the Inca did not attack.  Nor did they ever attempt to cross the Maule after that….

And so it is that the Mapuche fought the invading Inca to a standstill, so creating the southern limit to their empire.

The Battle at the Maule River, Part 1: Inca Expansion

The Spanish were not the first to fail to conquer the Mapuche people.  The Inca had invaded about a half century before them and their advance, south, was definitively halted at the Maule River….

As preface to that battle, allow me to lay the scene in this post by sketching out the expansion of the Inca empire.  And let me begin this explanation by saying that one of the fascinating aspects of  Inca hegemony was its brevity, for essentially it took only three generations of Inca “emperors” (sapa Inca) about a century to create the c. 2500 mile long empire (as measured along the coast), which totaled roughly 380,000 square miles … this empire the Spanish stumbled across in 1532, then despoiled and dismantled even more briefly.

The progress of the Inca conquest (depicted in the map below), extended from present day Colombia into the heart of Chile.
inca_mapThere are good reasons why the Inca grew their empire as they did–narrowly and north to south–for they never strayed far from their beloved (indeed, sacred) mountains, the Andes.  The altiplano–that high plateau between the coastal mountains (the sierra negra) and the Andes proper (the sierra blanca)–was the Inca heartland.  These were altitudes to which the Inca were physically accustomed and their culture (including warfare) adapted.  And, as they were acclimated to great heights (Cusco lies at an altitude of c.11,500 ft.), the Inca languished, grew sick, and often died in lowlands– down toward the desert which runs along the Pacific Ocean, but especially east, in the jungles of the Amazon basin.  Below, is a cross section of the Andes at the latitude of Cusco, clearly depicting the altiplano, with its relation to both the coastal desert and the Amazon.

perucrosssectionPachacuti–ninth recorded ruler–was the first to begin the great Inca expansion, conquering territory near Cusco, first south, then north into the altiplano.

220px-Tupac-inca-yupanqui-smallTupac Inca Yupanqui (depicted on the left), the indefatigable son of Pachacuti Inca, enormously built upon his father’s conquest, first extending it north, so that it reached far as today’s Ecuador.  Then–taking time off from expansion–he consolidated Inca dominion, building aqueducts, storehouses, bridges, roads, etc., and completely recreating Cusco into the wondrous miracle of masonry and hydrology the Spaniards eventually rode into.  He also ordered Sacsayhuaman constructed–that improbably immense fortress and ritual center whose remaining titanic stones still loom over Cusco.

After all this, seeing that what he had wrought was good, sometime around 1479  Tupac Inca Yupanqui decided to subdue rebellious southern vassals, and then continue his campaign to expand Inca dominion further in that direction.  So, after assembling one hundred and thirty nine thousand warriors–as numbered in Juan Betanzo’s Narrative of the Incas–he set off on what would turn out to be a six year expedition (which annexed, more or less, the enormous territory depicted in bilious green in the map above).

The Inca were nothing if not organized, and this included their wars.  When an an Inca army marched through its own territory it did so on roads and bridges built specifically for them–as well as for chasqui (messengers) and nobles and functionaries required to travel, for the common people of the empire did not leave their land (except when ordered to by the sapa Inca–to be relocated, for construction, or for war).  The army ate food and resupplied itself from the myriad storehouses along the way.  Below is a photo of such granaries at Ollantaytambo, high above the valley and difficult of access, but for good reason, as in this vertical land microclimate is everything, and at these heights the cold and wind better preserve the grain.
FW5A2583Where necessary, as they marched, they built spectacular bridges constructed entirely of fiber (except, of course, for the masonry piers).  Here’s a link to a site describing one that has continued to be rebuilt into the present: The Last Inca Suspension Bridge.  And below is a photo of that bridge….Inca suspension bridge

When new territory was annexed through combat or persuasive threat of force, the Inca extended their organized system of storehouses, roads and bridges, for they brought with them the bronze age equivalent of a modern Army Corps of Engineers.  They also built fortresses (pukara) to defend the territory they had acquired.  Workers were levied from the conquered territories to labor on these public works, for in the Inca empire everyone worked for the sapa Inca, who owned everything.

Year after year the unstoppable juggernaut headed by Tupac Inca Yupanqui  conquered its way south, eventually crossing the Atacama desert of what is now northern Chile, and then encountering a people which Betanzos calls “bellicose”–the Mapuche (meaning “people of the land” in Mapudungun, their language).  The army of Tupac Inca Yupanqui advanced far as the River Maule, where the Mapuche decided to make their stand.

My next post will pit Inca against Mapuche at that river….




Datura and Alternative Realities: In Searchof the Aboriginal Mapuche Machi (IV)

Commonly called Angel’s Trumpet, Datura stramonium sports a beautiful bloom.

IMG_6774 (1)



Here, a towering vine, with the characteristic clarion blossoms.



Said to have originated in the Americas, Datura has spread to all the world’s warm and moderate regions, where variations on the color and form of its trumpet have evolved.







Below, the seed pod, giving Datura two of its many names—pricklyburr and thorn apple.

Datura seed pod

Other common names include Jamestown weed (corrupted into jimson weed) and stinkweed.  Others are far darker: hell’s bells, devil’s bells and devil’s weed … one of these—in acute contradiction to the most common—is Devil’s Trumpet, for Datura is indeed a dark and complex thing, once its toxins are taken into the human body.  A last name–locoweed–reveals why Datura trumpet forth both Hell and Heaven….

Mad as a hatter, blind as a bat, red as a beet, dry as a bone….  The effects of Datura Stramonium intoxication—summed by this traditional ditty—are far from pleasant, and yet from time immemorial, worldwide this plant and its relatives have been used for sacred and ceremonial purposes.

Datura is a member of the potato family (the Solenaceae), which includes deadly nightshade, henbane, tobacco and mandrake, all of which are psychotropic. The active agent in Datura, atropine (a tropane alkaloid) is a poison that greatly punishes the body. As the ditty states, it causes delirium—a total inability to distinguish the vivid visions it induces from reality. Also, it dilates the pupils, which leads to photophobia.  (Here–in passing–a factoid: the “nickname” belladonna given to deadly nightshade derives from the habit of Italian belles of dosing themselves to dilate their pupils, flirting with death to increase their beauty.)  Datura also causes tachycardia—rapid beating of the heart—as well as elevated body temperatures, and an extreme dryness of the mouth. As if all this unpleasantness were not enough, Datura dosages can easily be deadly, depending on the part of the plant used (seeds, leaves, flowers) the stage of development, and the method of application or ingestion (Indeed, in some parts of Europe and India it has been cultivated as a poison). Nonetheless, used with caution, Datura has been prized by many societies for its remarkable ability to “liberate” the mind, severing its ties to reality–in other words, by providing total temporary madness.

In India, Datura is associated with the worship of Shiva—god of the dance of life—the plant said to have sprung from the hairs of his chest. And in the Americas, numerous peoples, including the Navajo, have made recreational and ritual psychotropic use of this plant. Those of European origin know Datura (or its cousins), through the well -known fact that witches fly by using ‘magic’ brooms…. Scholars have argued that such ‘flight’ actually consists of the characteristic soaring visions of Datura intoxication, caused by the application of an unguent to genitalia with a broomstick, as atropine can be absorbed through the skin (and most efficiently by the armpits and genitalia). Here’s a link to delicately worded article in The Atlantic, expanding on the ticklish theory: Why do witches ride brooms?



Technically, Datura is not a hallucinogenic, but a deliriant.   This means that, while under the influence of Datura, you are not just “seeing things,” but actually IN an alternative reality typically including spirit flight—which is to say the leaving of the body—and often transformation into animals. It is this which intrigued me for a variety of reasons when, early in my research into Mapuche culture, I discovered the use of Datura.

It is a documented fact that traditional Mapuche dose children with Datura in order to ‘see,’ in their delirium, what they will turn out to be as adults (for example, if the child picks up things not its own it will become a thief … and so on). But what drew me more to Datura and the Mapuche was its ritual use by machi. This intriguing fact which I encountered here and there in my early years of research was eventually attested to by Ana Mariella Bacigalupo’s magisterial book on Mapuche shamanism, Shamans of the Foye Tree: “Some machi ingest … the seeds of the miyaya, or chamico, plant (Datura stramonium), in order to produce hallucinations, divine the future, exorcise evil spirits, and treat pain, mental illness, asthma and rheumatism.”

In Arauco, I depict the physical effects of Datura and the characteristic progression of its induced visions (deliberately leaving the preparation of Datura concoctions vague … though the matrix of ripened urine I do include as one of those astonishing shocks encountered by ethnographic search). Certainly, not all present Mapuche machi indulge in Datura—indeed some look down on it as trafficking with poison, in this society where the boundary between shaman and sorcerer can be difficult to distinguish.  Though no one will ever know for certain if sixteenth century machi used Datura I assume it in Arauco … and I must confess that this decision derives partly from a festering generational ingestion of the books of Carlos Castaneda, in which Datura figures large. But ultimately, what Datura gave my novel was a structure for the visions of a machi who, accustomed in his own way to alternative realities, was forced to cope with one stranger and far worse than any vision possible to his people—the Spanish.

All cultures have their ‘edges’ (The Great Wall of China being an immense petrification of that metaphor). In Arauco that bound is depicted as a river, which I thought fitting for Mapuche culture–so focused in its daily life and in its myths on water–fitting also because the Bío Bío was for centuries the boundary and symbolic edge of the Araucanian war.

One cannot live in the middle of a river, as Ñamku states in Arauco.  Nor is a wall a place to live but a place to meet, a no man’s land where–the wall erected high enough–one can commune only while bearing the blank flag of truce. In such context (among other things), Datura stands for the radical blankness of that flag taken to another plane—a stripping away of body, self and culture, danger and travail taking one to where all rivers and all walls are overflown … a place where one, at last, might meet others similarly stripped of societal and mortal coil.

Calbuco Erupts in Southern Chile

Calbuco, a Chilean volcano which has been dormant for forty years, erupted yesterday, April 22nd, near Puerto Montt, in southern Chile.

Calbuco  3

Here is a map of southern Chile, showing the location of Puerto Montt:

Puerto Montt and Calbuco

And here is a map which shows the location of Calbuco relative to Puerto Montt, the southernmost city in Chile:


More images of the eruption:

Eruption of Chilean Calbuco volcano


Calbuco eruption 2 And here’s a link to the story on the BBC:


Right Angles only by Accident: An Essay on Inca Masonry

It took a recent trip to Peru–my first–to make me realize with curious shock that in the entirety of Arauco there is but one thing witnessed by Juan de Cardeña that today exists essentially unchanged … and that extraordinary thing is Inca masonry.  Scarcely troubled by earthquake, merely touched by the finger of time, such structures as the Spaniards did not disassemble or destroy still stand titanic, enigmatically offered to our admiration.  So, in my continuing effort to “illustrate” and “footnote”  Arauco, I here present (with explanation) some of the architecture and masonry my historical hero surely would have seen.

In the Inca heartland–no matter how humble–structures were invariably made of stone. And no mortar was ever used.  The one great variable was the quality of the masonry.  Some of the roughest (called “rubble masonry” by experts) can be found in the terraces that are a signature element of Inca agriculture.  Here is a perspective on Pisac, a site in the Sacred Valley, not far from Cusco:

Distance depicts the precision and beauty of these terraces, but gives absolutely no idea of their size.  Here a photo provides people for scale:

Pisac wallYou will note that the stones are in no way fashioned.  They are simply “stacked” (leaning slightly In) with such art that they have survived more than half a millenium.

Below are the terraces of Moray, another Inca site in the Sacred Valley:

Here a person (my wife) provides scale.  The masonry, as in the terraces at Pisac, is simply a precise stacking of stones.
Moray--Barb for scale

Remarkable as such Inca stone craft is, it attains a level of craftsmanship unmatched by any civilization in edifices erected for nobles and the sapa Inca himself.  In these, every stone is shaped to conform to those about it.  According to chroniclers, all of Cuzco–that city sacred to the Incas–was so constructed.

This is a typical section of a magnificent Cuzco wall which survived Spanish depredation.
Cuzco wall (1)

Here’s another part of that same wall, my wife providing scale.  The large stone she stands by is famous as having twelve “angles.”

Barb and wallEach huge ashlar is unique, shaped to fit those around it.  Amazingly, the Inca masons did not use metal tools to do this, but ground the stones in place, using yet harder stone and a slurry of sand and water.

The same sort of masonry construction was used in a much larger scale to build Sacsayhuaman, the temple/fortress which overlooks the city of Cuzco.  Since it was used as a kind of quarry by Spaniards from the time of the conquest (amazingly, I was told, until the 1970’s) a small fraction of the immense structure survives.  Not unsurprisingly, these are the very largest ashlars, which comprise the lowest part of the temple/fortress.  This Wikipedia photo depicts present Sacsayhuaman as a whole, Cuzco to the left, below:

A remarkable segment of a Sacsayhuaman wall:

And another segment with truly immense ashlars.  The largest stones used to construct Sacsayhuaman are thought to weigh between 128 and 200 tons.


Sacasayhuaman was (and is) extraordinary.  But the finest, most painstaking examples of Inca ashlar masonry were devoted to their sacred places, which were not always, not exactly, temples.  At Machu Picchu you can tell the sacred from the less so, simply by the masonry.  Consider the photo below….
Inca_temple (2)

At the bottom,the masons seem to have been given instructions as to quality which changed in the lower courses.  But above this secular confusion is the so called Temple of the Sun, distinguished both by that Inca rarity, a curved wall, and even more by the regular perfection of its masonry.

A view of that same “temple” from above (the Urubamba River below):
FW5A3512 - 2014-11-02 at 19-14-01

As your present guide I might point out that the sun, shining through the window built by the sacred rock enclosed by this “temple,”aligns its light with the carving on the rock at the winter solstice.

From this perspective you can get a better feeling for how Inca masons built their walls.  You will also notice that, like all Inca walls, this one slopes in.  This means that not only is every ashlar uniquely shaped to its place, but that (seen from the side) they are nothing like rectangles, and irregular even as parallelograms.  In Inca architecture there is nothing even remotely modular, like a brick.

Perhaps the finest Inca masonry left standing in Peru is what remains of Coricancha, the temple complex devoted to the sun (and a variety of other deities) in Cuzco.  The photo below shows, on the right, what remains of one exterior wall:

Much of Coricancha was destroyed, replaced by an immense (and immensely ugly) cathedral. But enough of the remarkable original remains to give one an idea of its masonry. The interior of one of the temples in the Coricancha complex now looks like this:


In its time and glory, the niches would have displayed Inca divinities fashioned from gold.  The stark, complex beauty of this room would have been covered by colorful tapestry of softest alpaca, this sacred space filled with a myriad precious things placed there by Incas to worship and honor their gods….

What the historical Juan de Cardeña (as well as my fictional version) would have seen would have been much like this photograph … an emptied and despoiled space, yet still timelessly wondrous in its beauty, the labor of its masons no a less a tribute to to the gods than the “idols” of the Inca goldsmiths, melted down by Spaniards to pay for their religious wars.






Hugo Campbell Sills, Guest Blogger: On the Mapuche and their Language

As the author of Arauco, to me one great (and strangely unanticipated) pleasure of publishing has been the bumping into some fascinating readers.  Hugo Campbell Sills—who, despite his name, could not be more Chilean—is one of them.  A graduate student of oenology, he is currently pursuing his degree in France, a co-author of, for example: Exopolysaccharide (EPS) synthesis by Oenococcus oeni: from genes to phenotypes (!!/??).  He is also a polyglot, who includes among his languages Spanish, English, Italian, French (these last two I presume from his residence in the respective countries), as well as native “Andean” languages, Quechua and Mapudungun among them.  A linguist as well, he has been actively involved in formulating a standard orthography for these last two languages (which they have not had to this day).  He is also deeply committed to the preservation of Mapuche language and culture.

Here’s Hugo Campbell Sills



And here’s Hugo’s blog: Amaruquyllur, which is (almost) entirely written in Mapudungun, in the orthography he has created.


Should you want to see, and hear, Hugo in France speaking Mapudungun and Quechua, check this out at Wikitongues: Hugo speaks in tongues

An instant admirer of Hugo’s enterprises, I asked him to be a guest on my blog, on the subject of the Mapuche and their language.  Below is what he wrote:


A joyful moment for the Mapudungun language

First of all, I must say that I feel honored to have been invited to write for this blog.  My first encounter with Arauco was in late 2013, as a gift I gave myself for Christmas.  I literally devoured the book: the storyline and the writing style got me hooked from the first paragraph.  As Ñamku felt the messages from Mapu, I got goose bumps, and I could see images passing through my head as if it were a movie. But my surprise increased when I discovered that John Caviglia was diving into the Mapuche language—Mapudungun—to afford us an even deeper sensation of being immersed in his scenario.

It is often said that it is impossible to understand a culture without knowing their language.  As a speaker of Mapudungun, my experience tells me that this is true, at least for this particular language and culture.  For Mapuche people, the düngu [ðəŋu] (language, word, voice, idea, issue, matter) plays a central role in defining their cosmology, not only because of the words they use to express their cosmos, but also in the construction of phrases and the way words relate to each other.  The way in which John introduces words and phrases in the Mapuche language as the story progresses makes us constantly remember the scenario in which the storyline is taking place.

Over the centuries Mapuche have constantly fought against people who tried to invade them: first against the Inca, who didn’t manage to conquer them; and then against the Spanish conquistadores, who encountered them in 1541. The Mapuche were actually the only South American indigenous people that managed to throw out the conquistadores.  As the Spaniards never conquered them, in 1641—after one century of war—the Spanish Crown capitulated, officially recognizing their independence and sovereignty over their territory, in an event called the Parlamento de Quilín.  Much later, in 1810, when Chile achieved its independence from the Spanish Crown, the Chilean liberator Bernardo O’Higgins reaffirmed their sovereignty and recognized the Mapuche as a sister nation. It wasn’t until 1861, after Chile won the War of the Pacific against Peru and Bolivia, and its army was mobilized, that the Chilean government decided to attack and conquer the Mapuche.  After this genocide the Mapuche people were absorbed by Chile, their lands taken, so that all that remains to them are small territories called “reducciones.”  But to this day they fight to protect their lands, culture and language.

Mapudungun is today a minority language that struggles to survive in a land where Spanish has become hegemonic.  As a country founded by colonizers, Chile’s modern culture is dominated by a criollo life style.  When Caviglia started to write this novel, materials about Mapudungun were scarce, if not impossible to find.  Grammar books, dictionaries, or any written Mapudungun were real jewels.  Moreover, at that time there wasn’t any standard orthography, which means that every single person wrote Mapudungun haphazardly, as they could.  Writers tried to deal with the phonology of Mapudungun (which is very different from that of Spanish) while at the same time attempting to represent it by adopting Spanish orthographic rules—the only language they knew to write.  I cannot but admire Caviglia for his work, not only because he introduced Mapudungun in his text, but also because he did it at a time when it seemed impossible.  He did such a wonderful job, that his orthography is almost identical to the newborn “alfabeto mapuche unificado” (unified Mapuche alphabet), which is an attempt by professional linguists to standardize this language’s orthography.

The history of written Mapudungun began in 1606, when the first grammar was written by Luis de Valdivia—a Jesuit—with clear evangelistic intentions. As terrible as it might sound, this text represents a cultural revolution, since for the first time it treats the Mapuche as people having a soul, implying that they deserve to be converted to the faith of God instead of being treated like sub-human creatures.  And indeed, religious institutions played a central role in alleviating the cruelty of the genocide taking place.  During the centuries that followed numerous works were written about Mapudungun.  From the early 17th until the early 20th century, there was a rich tradition of Mapudungun grammarians and researchers, always with the intention of religious conversion.  However, this did not prevent the Mapuche from preserving their culture until these days. As the brave weychafe (warriors) and kim che (sage people) that they always have been, they have managed to resist everything.

John Caviglia’s book is a true homage to the Mapuche people.  This great story will make you feel the storm that was the encounter of two completely different worlds, and the epic quality of this war that lasted for centuries, and still continues.  I am sure that this will also motivate people to get closer to Mapuche culture and language, or at least to make them know that they exist.  I can only say: Marichi wew, John, amulepe ta mi nütram! (ten times we will win, John, let your story continue!)



A Terrible Beauty: Chilean Volcanos

In Chile–that easternmost segment of the Pacific “ring of fire”–nothing is more chilean  than the volcanos sacred to the Mapuche, which is why I made sure to have one (along with araucarias) on the cover of Arauco … also why I made a volcano the header for this blog.  Volcanos are so numerous in Chile that apparently no one is quite sure of how many there might be–let’s say around five hundred–in a country map-active-volcanosroughly twice the size of the state of Montana.

These  figures are from an article in Wikipedia: List of volcanos in Chile.

Of this large and unknown number well over a hundred volcanos are geologically “active,” as schematically portrayed on the map to the right.


As the map indicates, many of Chile’s volcanos are embedded in the Andes, but geology chooses others to be solitary.


These titans are visible for miles and miles … like Llaima.





And here’s Llaima somewhat closer (photo from 2007).  My wife and I are standing on an old lava field, by a boulder ejected by the volcano.



Llaima erupted before our next visit in 2011.  The road had been bulldozed through cinder.


Here and there, there were miraculous blooms in the devastation.

IMG_7770But for miles, it might as well have been the moon.


Many Chileans live with the very real threat of an eruption.  Villarica, one of the most active of Chile’s volcanoes, is a case in point…. Here it displays its customary plume.


And here’s the volcano from Villarica, the eponymous city built at its base.

IMG_7744 In the streets of this city there are signs reminiscent of those of Smoky the Bear, warning of fire hazard–green, orange and red.  But in the case of Villarica they predict the likelihood of an eruption….

Eruptions can be catastrophic.  But they can also be spectacularly beautiful….

Beautiful eruption

And, as on the cover of Arauco, lightning enhances the show.  The photo below is part of an amazing series of an eruption in central Chile in 2011.


And no conclusion could be more apt than a link to that astounding set: Eruption photos 


The Mummies of the Atacama (and an “outtake” from Arauco)

The oldest mummies in the world are not in Egypt but in Chile, in the northern Atacama desert near the present day city of Arica.  The Atacama is so dry and so naturally rich in nitrate, that any corpse buried in it will naturally mummify.  However, the ancient peoples of the Chinchorro culture (roughly, between 5000 and 3000 BC) improved upon nature by artificially mummifying their dead.  Below are some images of the Chinchorro and their mummies, all from the Museo de San Miguel de Azapa, in Arica.

A diorama representing the ancient Chinchorro in their arid habitat:Living Chinchorros

Some “artificial” mummies:
Chinchorro mummies.   A row of “artificial” mummies
mummy row











One such mummy being “assembled”:
Preparing a mummy











Some less artificial mummies:


(A parenthetical factoid: Edvard Munch’s The Scream was influenced by a natural Peruvian mummy in a Paris museum.)               


Chinchorro mummified each other for thousands of years, in several ways, but I leave a more detailed explanation and discussion of this complex subject—fascinating, for me at least—to the following links: a short summary in Wikipedia; a more detailed explanation in National Geographic; and a theory as to why the Chinchorro mummified their dead in Discover Magazine.

Now, the mummies of the Atacama certainly have earned their place in a blog about Chile.  But—you may ask—what do they have to do with Arauco: a Novel?  Well … long as my novel is, it was far, far longer in its first draft.  And one of the many outtakes, concerns the Chinchorro mummies.  Not surprisingly, the passage occurs when Valdivia’s expedition has begun to traverse the Atacama Desert.  I excised it as too unhistorical, too long, too fantastic, and altogether too H. Ryder Haggard.  But I still kind of like it, and maybe those who have read Arauco may find it of interest, so I am resurrecting the “outtake” below.

PS Incidentally, I’m currently planning to retrace Juan’s journey from Cuzco to Santiago this fall (backwards), and I intend to meet some Chinchorro mummies, even though, when all was said and done, the Juan de Cardeña of Arauco did not. _______________________________________________________________________

Atacama “Outtake” from Arauco

Early the next morning, telling no one about this act of voluntary insanity, Juan chose to ride by himself up the arroyo where they were camped, following the gray-green scrub that undulated down its center, evidence of the life giving water that seeped below.  The walls of the dry watercourse were soon high enough to cast a welcome shade, even for a mounted man.  Knowing he could not get lost if he followed this dead stream, Juan let the horse choose both path and pace, having decided to fill his mind with desert until he was as empty as the place itself.  He stared at the fractured rocks, the lead-gray sand, the remorseless blue of the sky, riding until his horse stopped at a well sunk into the arroyo, a deep cavity lined with stone, the work of Incas perhaps.  Juan peered over to see steps descending to black water at the bottom.  And there were converging paths indicating that the well was regularly used.  Alarmed, Juan looked around, saw no one.  Deciding that any Indians that might have been there had vanished at his approach, he dismounted.  A ragged savage cry broke out on the rim of the arroyo when Juan was halfway down the well.  An attack!  He drew his knife and scrabbling up the stone steps, slammed his back into the bulk of Amadis, to protect him from arrows.  He was alone, surrounded!  But the Indian cries were retreating up the arroyo, in the direction of the cordillera.  Still, as the boulders strewn all about could easily hide a hundred warriors in their shadows, he waited.  When the shadows remained shadows Juan swung his leg over his horse, and from his new vantage, a stone’s throw away, he saw a head peering over a rock.  Black hair, wide black eyes, a headband worked with beads.

The Indian broke cover, running.  Then a half dozen dark forms detached themselves from boulders like shadows suddenly grown feet, scampering in ragged file through the garden of jumbled stone.  On an impulse Juan spurred his horse.

The Indians had a good lead and were astonishingly swift.  And the horse was slowed by the meanders of the path, so for some time Juan lost ground, his quarry disappearing around a curve ahead.  Giving them up for lost, he discovered that at the bend the boulders stopped and the riverbed turned to gravel, a surface better than any road in Spain.  Spurring, Juan saw the Indians at a distance, clambering up the canyon wall.  The climb seemed impossible, but they were making progress.

One of the climbers lost his toehold, hung for a heart-wrenching moment by one hand and fell, bouncing down the rough wall, slamming into the river bed.   Amazingly he sprang up and ran, limping though.  Soon Juan was behind him, slowing his horse to a trot, looking down at the back of the tightly braided head.  The Indian was barefooot, slender.  A bow and quiver were slung upon his back.  A rag was about his loins, and he was painted in black stripes, red dots, probably for war.  He seemed a youth about his age, and at the end of his endurance, for he was slowing.

Feeling like a bullfighter about to dispatch his wounded beast, Juan reined in as the Indian rounded another bend, and was just in time to see the youth disappear into the canyon wall.  Arrived at the site of the miracle he saw nothing but the fractured face of the cliff.   There were large crevices, yes, but nothing wide enough for even the slim youth to slip through.  To disappear so suddenly he must have run into a larger opening that to all appearances ended blind.  Juan scrutinized the cleft.  Did it conceal a trap?  But the savage only had bow and arrow, useless in close quarters.  Juan drew his knife, dismounting.  He had risked too much already to turn his back upon insanity, and vaguely, he wanted to apologize.  He shuffled into the narrow opening.  No one there.  As his eyes became accustomed he made out a space between boulder and cliff, wide as his shoulders, black as Hades.

Hearing nothing but his own breathing he slid in sideways, feeling his way with his knife, blade grating on stone from time to time.  The cleft narrowed until he had to shuffle sideways to continue.  Here the fissure was almost as straight, as smooth as an Inca alley, and Juan decided that it had been improved, if not created, by man.  Seeing faint light he stepped into what seemed a half lit cave.  After total darkness even this dimness was blinding and he paused.  A hammer hit his ribs and he staggered back.  The youth, not five paces away, stood in intolerable sunlight with the second arrow nocked, the obsidian arrowhead at once black and bright.   The “No!” swelling to Juan’s throat exploded as a grunt when the arrow slammed into his belly.  The third hit his ribs like a tiny fist of amazing power.

He had been saved by chain mail, but would the Indian learn from his failures and target his legs, his vulnerable throat?     The fourth arrow hit him high on the side with a hollow sound, knocking the air from his lungs.  Juan turned and squatted to protect his legs, his throat, and was hammered in the back twice more.  Then blessedly, nothing.  Juan looked: there was no one at the opening of the cave, if cave it was, and in a fighting crouch he emerged into the brilliance of the Atacama.   His sight was swimming, but he could make out what he interpreted as a large round church with short columns in the shaded edge, and the sky its roof.  At the center, by the altar, was the Indian youth with his arms folded, useless bow hanging from his hand.  Juan looked up, around.  The walls were sheer and higher than an ancient oak was tall.  There was no escape for the Indian.  And suddenly, vertiginously, Juan saw himself through his eyes, a glittering, alien thing.

He had led Juan into a place where he could not take his horse.  He had shot all his arrows into the foreign terror at close range, accurately, and sorcery had made them fall to the ground as if he had shot the canyon wall.  Now he was trapped himself, waiting for a death he did not expect to recognize.

Juan sheathed his knife.  At close range the Indian seemed little more than a child.  Juan turned his eyes to the temple, focusing on the closest pillar, and the sight knocked him back like a blow.  A man, erect and motionless!  He had completely misread the scene.  He drew, spinning like a compass gone amok, his knife the needle.  Every pillar was a man!  He leapt at the one nearest the exit, extending his body into a projectile heavy behind his blade.  The shock of contact twisted his wrist.  Juan janked, but his knife was stuck in the Indian, who did not move, white eyes wide with black slits for pupils, like the eyes of a cat turned sideways.  Beneath that horror, the mouth was a huge silent laugh.

Throwing himself back, rolling, Juan came up kneeling without his knife.   The Indian was slowly bowing.  Broken in half, he sank forward … and his hair fell off.

Juan scanned the church.  Every column was an Indian, arms stiff at his sides, flesh like eroded stone, eyes motionless in masklike faces.  Not one of them was breathing.  Mummies!  With a shiver of dread Juan knew he was safe, and worked his blade out from between mummy ribs.  He walked slowly to the Indian youth, empty hands extended in what he intended as a friendly gesture, saying, “No tengas miedo.  Soy amigo.”

How to convince the savage that he meant no harm?  Juan rummaged through his pouch, finding charqui.  He took a piece and gnawed, rubbing his stomach, extending a piece to the Indian, who made a pushing gesture, as if to shove the shrunken stuff away.  “Charqui,” he scoffed correctly, reaching into his own pouch for seeds which he offered in turn, grunting an Indian word.

Juan chewed and it was strange, oily, good … recalling sesame.  They ate and soon were trying to learn each other’s names.  J was impossible for the Indian, and after a half dozen failures he settled on An, shrugging, grinning.

Juan was impressed by this display of linguistic ability, for he could not get the half of the youth’s name, which was long as a paragraph.  Sticking a finger between his lips and flopping them, he produced “Abubabubabubabubabu,” rolling his eyes, an idiot.

A cackle broke from the Indian like a bubble, then he was laughing, pointing at himself, flipping his lips.  “Abuabu.”

Names settled, emboldened, Abuabu reached over to where his arrows had bounced, touching the chain mail with astonished fingertips.  Gesturing ‘wait til you see this’ Juan lifted armor and shirt to show him the livid bruises, one directly over his heart.

Wondering about the mummies, Juan went to examine.  The soft rock of the ampitheater had been excavated, so that every mummy had its niche, as in the portals of cathedrals.  Intrigued, Juan did the round.  Naked, the mummies were equal in the trance of death, their flesh like wrinkled gloves on bone.  A few children were to be told by size.  And the women could only be distinguished by their longer hair, for Juan could not make out a breast.  He did not scrutinize the mummied crotches.

Fleshed out with clay, the faces gripped his attention and would not let go, these masks of extraordinary force.  From where their power, he wondered.  Because so real, portraits built on actual bone, statues alive from within?  Because so still in that last peace, never closing their blind eyes, so uncaring of his care?

Black or red, flaked, the pigments of the masks had dimmed.  They had all been scalped (apparently), the hair removed and replaced as macabre wigs.  And staring from the crude, smooth faces fashioned from clay were eyes of shell.  With shock, Juan recognized the green eyes of Inés in stone, and hurried on, something nagging at his mind.  The Indians made statues of their dead as living, standing open eyed, nothing like the horizontal lords on coffin lids in Spanish churches, eyes closed in eternal rest.  The mummies were not depicted dead, waiting for the trump.  They were not out of sight, these statues of themselves.  They were not even, somehow, dead.  Why would the living create dead that looked back, Juan asked himself, a chill of horror crawling his spine.  He shook it off, noticing that the shadows had grown long and Abuabu was nowhere to be seen.

He hurried to the cleft, which this time seemed shorter, more artificial, and emerged into bare canyon, Amadis standing there with hanging head, probably asleep.  Even his tail was still.  While Cuzco was a cornucopia of what one did not recognize, in the Atacama there were not even flies, Juan thought.  How easily absences could happen without your even knowing.  Why had he not missed flies before today?  The Atacama was dead, but more important, death was like the Atacama.  He mounted Amadis, on the verge of a revelation inspired by mummies.  Maybe difference always surprised you, like death, like Cacafuego.

Suddenly a horde of warriors materialized, circling, arrows nocked but bows not drawn.  Abuabu stepped forward unarmed, hand elevated in the sign of peace, and spoke.

Juan recognized only his own name, An.  Abuabu gestured to a man who stepped forward, older but otherwise like every other Indian there: short, black, black haired, with braids, bangs, a scrap over his manhood, a pouch at his waist and face paint, ocher, with white smeared on the bridge of his nose.  He was unarmed, like Abuabu, and wore a headband like the mummies.

Having been introduced, Juan extemporized, “Encantado, senor Don Indio Importante,” commenting upon the pleasures of the meeting.  The Indian replied in halting Quechua, creating a contest as to who would be least understood.

Juan grinned and dismounted to the sound of muffled Indian speech the hesitant circle apprehensive of the horse.  Insanely, Juan was tempted to relieve tension with lightness, lift the horse’s tail and sniff his ass.  He had seen universal humor at work before, but was not made of Cacafuego’s stuff.  He sat down cross-legged instead, as he was bid by gesture, Quechua and example, with a small circle of Indians.

Juan could no more pronounce the name of the chief than Abuabu’s, and since humor was out of the question, he called him what he was, El Jefe, which he explained meant a big, big man in his own language.  Accepting his honorific with pleased dignity, the chief thanked Juan for sparing Abuabu.  Then in a long speech he asked, scratching pictures on a flat rock, how Juan could separate from his horse.  By way of explanation Juan went to Amadis, mounting and dismounting.  There were awestruck gasps and exclamations, a single smothered cheer.  Juan warmed to the drama, leaping on, leaping off, until the Indians were roaring.  Encouraged, he went to Abuabu and offered to hoist him up on horseback.  Abuabu froze, like a hare eye to eye with a fox, but every other Indian broke into a clamor of encouragement, clacking arrows against their bows.

Juan lifted Ababu’s foot, and before the youth realized what was happening, heaved him up.  He landed crosswise in the saddle, like a grain sack on a mule, and stayed there.  Leaving well enough alone Juan paraded him to the sound of Indian wonder and merriment, until the celebration was interrupted by the arrival of food, something very much like chicha, and wood, miraculously acquired in mid desert.  Juan helped proud Abuabu down.  Today he had become a living legend among his people.

They ate and drank, a fire was built.  Juan explained that he had come from Peru, land of the Incas.  That they seemed to understand.  But nothing else made sense to them: his white skin, ships, Spain, chain mail, the cross around his neck, Holy Mother the Church, the Pope, the horse, the metal of his knife, God in His Trinity, Valdivia, the Holy Roman Emperor.  Only when Juan pointed south and explained that he was going there did the Indians finally respond, making it clear there was nothing south.  They were emphatic.  They spat with disgust, they staggered and fell and pretended to die with their tongues hanging out.  They pointed back to Peru.

Then they responded to his questions.  Their village was up the canyon, and when they saw the monster with two heads, they ran there.  Abuabu returned with the extraordinary news that part of the monster was human in many ways, and friendly, that could talk and eat, that they had shared food.  He had even heard him burp.  The village council had decided to meet this marvel.

Juan asked where they got their wood.  They pointed east and shrugged.  That settled, nothing much else about them seemed particularly interesting to Juan.  They were nearly as naked as the desert.  He asked about the mummies, pointing to the cleft, standing with his his legs together arms at his sides, eyes wide.

El Jefe rolled his own, as if in Spain you had asked a simple village priest, who could not read, to explain the presence of God Almighty in the host.  Some things were at once so evident and so impenetrably mysterious as to be uninteresting, however holy, however much a central part of life.  Juan pressed for answers.  El Jefe spoke to an Indian in the inner circle who was like the others but older, gray haired, with no weapon.  His face was painted black save for white rings around his eyes, which gave him a look of perpetual wonder, like an owl.

He explained.  Juan gathered that the mummies were the dead of their ancestors, and the place where they were had been made by them.  No one made mummies like that any more.

Juan asked how they made mummies now, and learned that when the dead were buried in the sand they just turned dry.  Everybody knew that, he was told somewhat impolitely.  The white stranger was proving to be dim in wit.

Juan asked how the first men had made mummies.

Abuabu was chosen for the demonstration, lying down on the ground as the Indian explained the ancient ways.  First the chest was cut open and the entrails removed.  (Abuabu made a face).  The brain was removed through the nose with long wooden scoops and spoons.  (Abuabu’s eyes grew wide).  Then using the beak of a pelican (the drawing of the bird was unmistakable), the hair was removed.

Juan had a thousand questions but was embarrassed to ask: what about the women’s breasts, the brains and intestines, all the extra organs?  What about the eyes, the testicles?  It seemed to him that some of the most important human parts were discarded.  Were they discarded?

Stolid, the old Indian walked rote’s narrow path….  Next, you filled the cavities with hot coals and ashes.  (Abuabu was beyond reaction).  Then you removed the coals and ashes and put in feathers and rags.  The chest was tied tight with a rope, the arms cut off at the elbow, legs severed at the knees, and the joints scraped flat and reassembled with thongs to make the limbs straight and immovable.  Finally a stick was driven up the ass along the spine, and the backbone lashed to it.  Abuabu wiggled as if tickled, and the Indians roared.

Then rods were driven from each ankle to the skull.  The mummy could then stand up.  (Abuabu demonstrated).  Cheers.

The old Indian worked on the face with clay, replaced the eyes with seashells.  Abuabu squinted, upright, unseeing, turned into an unmoving pillar, a silent oracle, a statue made of meat….

Under a borrowed Indian blanket, Juan slept restlessly that night.  The next morning El Jefe and Abuabu tried to convince him to go to their village, to feast.  Juan refused.  He was missed, he knew.  And Amadis needed forage.

Returning the invitation Juan found no one willing to come with him.  El Jefe explained that Almagro and his men had not passed through their village.  But he came close enough and left a reputation.  The white men had taken all the food they could find, including the seed for next year’s planting, as well as many men and women.

He was interrupted by a cry echoing from the canyon rim, and in an instant a rumble became audible, growing louder, roaring up the defile.  Horsemen.  They had, Juan judged, reached the first bend and spurred their horses to a gallop, just as he had.  In moments they would arrive.

El Jefe and his people vanishing soundlessly into the cleft, but Abuabu hung back, babbling, eyes wide with the terror of yesterday.  Confined by canyon walls, the hammering roll of iron on stone grew into an apocalyptic roar as Abuabu backed slowly into darkness, pleading.  And although Juan did not know his language he knew what he was asking.

The dogs appeared, running free and silent, two greyhounds and two mastiffs in full armor: collars with razor sharp knives, a metal plate on the forehead, mail about the neck, steel on the chest of the mastiffs, chain on the greyhounds.  They were the beasts of the Apocalypse.  And behind them came the horsemen.

Juan was seeing with the eyes of Indians, and when the dogs neared he drew in reflex, that familiar act returning him to himself, if not to Spain, and he was thinking clearly, coldly.  The dogs would find the cleft, and he had sworn (albeit silently) to Abuabu, that he would not let the white demons harm his people.  But how to hold back the Spanish once they knew that there was gold and silver, however little, to be had by killing?

Mendoza’s whistle brought the dogs to a halt.  They sat, straining at an invisible leash.  The horsemen rumbled up, Mendoza pale under his hat, Valdivia stern, Marmolejo ready for holy war.  Pedro scrutinized the child of his heart for damage.  Inés, slipped from her horse, crying out, then crying on his shoulder.  Juan fought back tears himself.  Then she was standing back, holding hands, saying they had been so worried.  She scolded him for leaving without a word.

But Juan was looking at the dogs, who were staring at the cleft.

Mendoza said, “There are savages in there,”  indicating the narrow opening with a gesture.

The Lieutenant Governor looked around, saying he saw no Indians.  Mendoza shrugged.  Savages trained all their lives to become difficult to see, but their genius in vanishing was as nothing to the genius of his dogs in finding them.

Juan ran to the cleft, blocking the entrance with his body, knife drawn, crouching.  The Governor stared, unbelieving.

Inés shrieked “No!” drawing her knife at a dead run, black skirts billowing with speed.  Pedro, too encumbered with armor to do well on his feet, swung up onto his horse.

Valdivia turned to Mendoza and said, low, cold, furious, “Stop this now. Ahora mismo, te lo digo!”

The whistle came too late.  The greyhound bitch had already leapt for the arm that held the knife, the male for Juan’s throat.  Slower in reflex, the mastiffs stopped in their tracks.

Juan knew the dogs were trained into predictability, and at the last moment he switched knife hands and spun.  This tactic, which worked with Incas, failed with the inhuman speed of the dogs.  The bitch missed, corkscrewing in the air, clashing into the canyon wall.  But the male struck Juan’s shoulder with his armored weight, knocking him over.  Instantly on their feet, the dogs pressed their attack, an army of feet and fangs and blades.  No instruction had prepared Juan for this.

Inés shifted from foot to foot, unable to find a target in the twisting, snarling blur.  The whistle came again, but the dogs were deep in blood lust.  Juan stabbed blindly backhand into the maelstrom of flesh and metal grinding him into the ground.  The knife was twisted from his hand.  A yelp.  Another whistle.  Then quickly as it began it ended.  The feet, the fangs, the collar knives were gone, the male greyhound trotting proudly toward Mendoza while the bitch tried to follow, dragging herself with her front paws.  Juan’s knife was lodged in her backbone, and she was vainly scrabbling.

Ignoring her, Mendoza went to the male and removed his armor.  Another invisible signal turned the dog immobile, a panting statue.  Mendoza drew his sword and beheaded him in one clean sweep, then removed the bloody armor of the bitch.  Without a word, methodically, he began to load all the metal in his saddlebags, the focus of frozen astonishment.

Inés and Pedro found that much of the blood covering Juan was from the bitch.  He brushed his friends away almost rudely, though, apprehensive, feeling faint.  The world was blurry and at its center was Valdivia, stern, magisterial, twirling his waxed beard into a finer point as he searched the face of his secretary for the cause of this inexplicable behavior.  His irresponsibility had caused the death of two invaluable dogs, perhaps worth more to the expedition than Juan himself.  His tone said it all, “Eh?”

Juan replied, “I’m sorry, Don Pedro.  I just rode until it was too late to return.”

The Lieutenant Governor was outraged at the patent lie.  “What secret is in that hole, worth fighting against four war dogs?  Eh?  Your virginity?”  Valdivia would have said worse, but Inés was listening.

Juan’s ears were burning under his Inca helmet.  He stammered, “I, I made a friend.  I mean an Indian friend.  Just a boy.”  Juan demonstrated the insignificant height of his new acquaintance with his hand.  “He’s in there.”

“Does the village of this midget have food?”

Sweet Jesus help him!  Valdivia’s eyes could pierce trough every lie.  Food was bad enough.  But gold!

“He is very afraid, ” Juan pleaded.

“What?” yelped Valivia.  “The midget is frightened!”

“Yes, but no food.  Not really.  Just some seeds we ate.  Yes, ate them all.”

Valdivia was speechless, mustaches quivering with anger, but before Juan lied again, and worse, Heaven interceded in the human and yet angelic form of Inés de Suarez.

“Valdivia, for the love of God, this is not a dungeon of the Inquisition.  Here you are, yelling at the wounded child, interrogating him like a Jew who has been dining on Christian children, when all he did is try to protect his little Indian friend.  Look, he’s shaking like a leaf … even more than your mustache.  And he’s literally dripping with blood.  For shame.  He needs to be cleaned and bandaged, not hectored.”

And that was that.  Valdivia gave his beard a yank, bending it out of true, and stalked to his horse muttering, as the ministering angel retrieved materials from her saddlebags to heal the so-called child.  Coldly, he asked Mendoza why he had killed a valuable dog.

No less cold, no less angry, Mendoza replied, “I do not tolerate disobedience.”


In search of the aboriginal Mapuche machi (III). The rewe (or rehue).

rehue2As the kultrun, or drum, is inseparable from the spiritual vocation of Mapuche machi,  so is the rewe.  But, although shamans of many cultures utilize drums, the rewe is, I think, unique to Mapuche shamanism.  And there is no doubt in my mind that it was an inseparable part of a machi’s life at the time of the Spanish advent.

What, then, is a rewe…?  Physically, it is a pole carved from the trunk of a tree (usually laurel or oak) and buried in the ground, with steps hewn into it that the shaman can ascend.  The number of steps varies from three to nine, with seven being perhaps most typical as significant in Mapuche symbolism.  The rewe is situated so that the machi climbing it faces east–with its rising sun–and at the summit a face is carved.

Digimax A50 / KENOX Q2

Spiritually, the rewe is an axis mundi, the center of the shaman’s spiritual life, and that of the community.   Made from a tree, and “rooted” in the earth like a tree, it rises toward the heavens.  Branches of klon (maqui, in Spanish–Aristotelia chilensis), triwe (Laurelia sempervivens) and bamboo are tied to the sides of the rewe. Like the sacred tree of Norse mythology, the Yggdrasil–it unites lower realms with higher. Standing upon it, the machi  becomes a conduit between realms physical and spiritual, human beings and spirits, enabling them to communicate.


Since the rewe centers the community’s spiritual life, religious ceremonies are held around it. But above all the rewe is the center of the spiritual life of the machi.  It is an important part of the initiation ceremony.  Thereafter, the machi ascends the rewe to face the rising sun and pray.  The rewe can be part of the machitun, or healing ceremony.  And the ancestral, counseling and guiding spirit, the filew is thought to live in the rewe, so that when it grows decayed or begins to topple, the machi  falls ill.

In my next post of  this series, I will refer to the remarkable book of Ana Mariella BacigalupoShamans of the Foye Tree, which on its cover portrays a male Mapuche shaman….

shaman bacigalupe

In our search for the original Mapuche machi, we have already discussed the clothing he wears, as largely anachronistic.  We have also discussed the kultrun the machi holds, and the rewe by which he sits, as essential to his being and practice, as shaman.  Still to be discussed is the complex, fascinating question of machi sexuality.

Why is he dressed as a woman…?





Porotos Granados–A pre Columbian recipe with a Chilean name

Before the Spanish advent, of necessity, Mapuche were largely vegetarian.  They had no cattle, goats, sheep or pigs, which were introduced by Europeans.  And in their forests the largest edible animal was the smallest deer in the world, the pudu, which is thirteen to seventeen inches tall:







The Mapuche had domesticated
chickens (not surprisingly called Araucanas) which lay blue eggs, and they probably also had domesticated ducks.  But they were farmers essentially, largely doing without “red meat,” their staples instead being plants unknown to Europeans of the time: potatoes, corn, and what we North Americans now call ‘beans’ (phaseolus vulgaris … as opposed to the garbanzos and fava beans eaten in sixteenth century Europe).  And they also cultivated squash, equally unknown to the contemporary Spanish….  Therefore, arguably, nothing is more natively American than that delicious triad of corn, beans and squash (known as the “three sisters” by native North Americans).

That said, there is–somewhat ironically–a quintessentially Chilean recipe in which the principal ingredients are nothing other than the three pre-Columbian “sisters.”  It is called “Porotos Granados,” poroto being the word for ‘bean’ in Chilean Spanish, and ‘granados‘ presumably referring to the grains of corn.  This is a recipe I have loved since childhood, which I here would here like to share with you….

As it is now harvest season, the essential ingredients are available in our garden.



These are so-called “shell” beans, as shucked fresh out of the husk.   They are often called ‘Cranberry Beans’ in the United States.





Almost any corn will work … a little old and tough–as with these late autumn ears from our garden–will do fine.  In fact Chileans use an enormous kind of corn, called “ Diente de Caballo,” or Horse’s Tooth, in traditional recipes, which is nowhere near sweet nor tender by North American corn-on-the-cob standards.





In Chile there are huge squash in the markets of which you buy a chunk for Porotos Granados. Here in the US  I have used both acorn and butternut squash with wonderful results.  But if I had to choose, I would probably go with butternut….




One last thing remains to be said before my version of this recipe:  aboriginal as the triad of essential ingredients might be, Chilean porotos granados include elements of European origin, olive oil and basil being foremost.  Onions and garlic as we know them should also be added to that list….



3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 medium squash, peeled and chopped into chunks
2 cups of fresh, shelled cranberry beans
The kernels from 2 or 3 ears of corn (2 cups or so)
3 tablespoons of fresh, chopped basil
salt and pepper

Heat the oil over medium heat in a largish pot.  Sauté onions until translucent.  Stir in the garlic and sauté a minute or two.  Stir in the squash and sauté a few more minutes.  Add a quart of water (or more, for something more like a soup).  Add beans and basil, and simmer half an hour, or until beans are tender.  Add corn, season with salt and pepper to taste, and simmer for five more minutes.

Note: Feel free to alter most of the “measurements” in this dish.  I personally never pay real attention.

Also … a traditional garnish which I would NEVER do without is called “color” by chilenos, for reasons you will appreciate if you choose to make it.  It’s easy, and I never measure the ingredients.  So … take maybe four tablespoons of olive oil and heat over medium heat in a small saucepan.  Add several cloves of finely chopped garlic (or as much as your garlic mania dictates) and fry until the garlic flavor has suffused the oil, but certainly not to the point that the garlic is browned.  Then add enough good paprika that the oil turns genuinely dark.  Stir a few times, and put a spoonful or two of this on your porotos….

Finally, porotos granados reheat wonderfully.








In Search of the aboriginal Mapuche machi (II). The drum, or kultrun.

This is the second post of a series on Mapuche shamanism.

In the first, I argued that many machi “trappings,” particularly the silver jewelry, are modern.  In effect, the present day machi wears what the Mapuche woman (domo) puts on for special occasions.  Here’s a wonderful  postcard of a contemporary domo in her “finest.”

Mapuche domo

Mapuche domo



The reader will note that the machi of the previous posting wears much the same silver jewelry.  The head band is a trarilongko … the pectoral pendant is a trapilacucha.





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Here’s the machi at the wetripantu ceremony I photographed, for comparison.



Until fairly recent times, it seems, Mapuche of both sexes wore some sort of cloth headband (trarilongko).  But the wearing of silver is a consequence of Spanish contact.  The aboriginal Mapuche knew both gold and silver, and had their own words for them.   Perhaps they had some idea of what these “precious” metals meant to the Inca, with whom they fought.  But the wearing of silver was ultimately a consequence of trading with the Spanish once they were there to stay.  Having no use for money as itself–at least at the outset–such coins as the Mapuche acquired were beaten into ornament.

So, having stripped the contemporary Mapuche machi of silver and modern cloth, what is left from ancient times…?  I propose that what has survived has to do with what is indispensable to their calling….  And I think myself probably right in assuming that the drum of the machi (the kultrun, or kultrung) is the first of these things, and even in these days much as it was in times aboriginal.  Rare is the machi portrayed as such at any time–say for portrait, or postcard–who does not hold drum and drumstick.  And this drum, to all appearances, has remained more or less the same in size, construction, and decoration of the drum skin.  Here”s a typical example …


which demonstrates that the head of the drum is always ritually divided by paint into four sections (although other elements vary).  The body, traditionally carved out of solid wood, is hemispherical and represents the universe: the drum skin is the surface of the earth; the space above is wenu mapu, the heavens; and the base is the underworld.  The lines dividing the quadrants of the drum skin figure forth the cardinal directions, and the quadrants themselves represent the four seasons and the four winds…. In short, the drum represents the Mapuche universe, in a way that allows the shaman to play a kind of “music of the spheres.”

The design which divides the drum skin into four varies (as well as the elements depicted in each quadrant–which frequently represent the sun, moon, and stars).  Here are some other examples:


It is worth mentioning that machi place pairs and ‘quadruplets’ of small objects inside their drums, so that they add their part to the noise produced.  These objects are divided into ‘male’ and ‘female,’ according to their qualities and attributes.  For example, the seed of maize, wool, the leaves of laurel and kopiwe, llanka and lican (sacred stones) are added as ‘female,’ because of their association with fertility and life. Some objects considered ‘male’ are chili and foye leaves, charcoal and volcanic rock, because of their association with exorcism and fire.  Interestingly, therefore, the drum not only figures forth the universe, but also contains within itself the representation of both sexes, and thus adds this additional element to its totality.

Endnote: This post contains much material taken from Ana Mariella Bacigalupo’s book on Mapuche machi: Shamans of the Foye Tree

To be continued….




Interview by Bryn Hammond

Bryn Hammond is an author living in Australia who is writing an amazing trilogy about Genghis Khan, titled Amgalant, based on The Secret History of the Mongols.   Her research has been exhaustive … but her prose is truly and wonderfully anti-pedantic. She takes us to where we can live and breathe and have our being along with such Mongols as changed the world–which, if you ask me, is what the best historical novels do.  Her style is fresh, and all her own….

And I am delighted to report that she interviewed me about Arauco, sending me wonderful questions (that I am still mulling over), to which I responded in her blog….

The Q&A, in Bryn’s blog:

My review of the first volume of her trilogy: //

In search of the aboriginal Mapuche machi

Although I in no way pretend to be an expert on Mapuche shamanism, this is the first of several posts in which I will attempt to present how I arrived at the shamans of my novel….

While in Chile in 2007, my wife and I stayed  in a Mapuche campground near Lake Budi, in the south.  The Chilean government was encouraging ethnotourism, and these were Mapuche attempting to keep their ethnic roots alive (presumably with government help).  We were fortunate to arrive  at a time when they were celebrating wetripantu–the New Year.  They performed traditional songs and dances, and a machi presided at the ceremony.  (You can click on this photo–or any other in the blog–to enlarge it.)
Machi ceremony:1

Above you see the machi playing on her sacred drum, the kultrung.  Behind her are two men playing a circular instrument, the  trutruka.  Another man plays on a bull’s horn.  Behind them is the thatched side of the traditional Mapuche dwelling, the ruka.

Worth mentioning is the fact that the men are wearing contemporary clothing, while the machi is ritually dressed.  She is barefoot, and wearing silver jewelry.  Also worth mentioning is that her apron is contemporary cloth, colored with modern dyes.

Here, the Mapuche dance around the sacred foye (or foiqui) tree, carrying branches taken from it….  Note the little learner, on the left, holding his own branch.

Dancing Mapuche


And now, a not quite so contemporary photo of three machi, taken in 1903….

Some things have not changed.  They are all dressed as women.  And their kultrung are pretty much the same.  Those are the constants.  However, all the silver jewelry, and all the contemporary cloth (save perhaps for the machi on the left), are simply just not there, in a clearly formal portrait.  Also, the brightly colored apron is gone….  In a little more than one century, at least the machi trappings have radically changed.

To be continued….





PDF files of the Mapudungun/English glossary now on website

I know it’s a hassle having to go back to Arauco‘s glossary at the back of the paperback, or worse, in your e-reader, so now there are PDF files available in both  illustrated and unillustrated versions.  Just go to the page  Mapudungun: Language of the Mapuche, mouse down to A Mapudungun/English glossary, mouse over to one the PDF files of the glossary, and click.  Voila!  So now you can download either glossary to your desktop, or print it.

Next, I’m planning to do a series of posts on Mapuche shamanism.

Happy reading!

Names on the Land now Called Chile

CHILE MAP copyThis map depicts cities founded by Valdivia.   It also situates the fictional location of the cave of Ñamku, which I imagine to be in a present day park named Nahuelbuta, on the summit of a mountain on the coastal range which contains some of what little is left of virgin forest.

Important rivers are also depicted.  Of these, the Bío Bío became the de facto boundary between Spanish Chile and the lands of the Mapuche, during the 300 or so years that the see-saw conflict between them lasted.

For a summary of this conflict, see: Arauco War, in Wikipedia. Interestingly, this article states that but for fears that other nations might occupy Chile, the Spanish might have abandoned it in the late 16th century, as not worth the war.  The reader might note that, of present day Chile, the third of it north of Santiago composes the Atacama Desert, largely uninhabitable, and considered worthless until the discovery of its minerals (nitrate, copper, and etc.), while the third south of the Bío Bío was Mapuche until the latter part of the 19th century … all of which gives credit to the idea of the abandonment of this distant land … which might lead one wildly to speculate as to what would have happened if the Mapuche actually won their war….



Juan de Cardeña’s journey to Santiago

As Juan de Cardeña’s place of birth is not recorded, I had him born in a typical villlage of Extremadura, that empoverished province of Spain which produced so many conquistadores.  Of necessity, the locus of his nativity will remain unmapped.  But from Sevilla on his route is the stuff of History, following that of the Spanish treasure ships to Panama…


Having crossed the Atlantic (stopping at the Azores), below is depicted Juan’s route through Panama to Callao, Peru.  (Note that the distance from Sevilla to Cuzco is 5500 miles–as the crow flies.)















And the following map gives an idea of his journey from Cuzco to Santiago–approximately 1800 miles on horseback.

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Images of Pedro de Valdivia

Although Valdivia had secretaries to record his words, he had no one to record his image.  Therefore, all we have are flights of the imagination fueled by words and, often, by misconceptions about the time.

Below is the iconic image (if Google Images is any judge) of Pedro de Valdivia.  It is most definitely retrospective, as the portrait was done in the nineteenth century.

















And here is  an equally retrospective version of Valdivia’s founding of Santiago, complete with a subservient Indian in imagined costume. Fundacion_de_Santiago

The araucaria tree, or peweñ

In almost all cases, if a North American or European recognizes a plant or animal in Chile it is not indigenous.  A virtual island isolated by the Atacama Desert, the Pacific Ocean and the Andes, this is a land which has largely evolved its own flora and fauna … a land of haunting strangeness for the distant traveler.  And of its plants and animals, none is more iconic than the national tree of Chile–the araucaria.  The same Spaniards who renamed the Mapuche araucanos named this pine, but the Mapuche themselves call it the peweñ, and the subset of their people who in indigenous times lived on the slopes of the Andes and subsisted on its nuts the peweñche.

Below is the characteristic silhouette of a mature pehueñ.  The photo was taken in Nahuelbuta National Park in Chile, with the Andes and its volcanoes in the misty distance.

Nahuelbuta preserves some of the last of the virgin rain forest of the coastal range in Chile, and this is what it looks like, magical, almost impassable, bedecked with moss.  Note that the understory is bamboo.


Here, the characteristic bark of a huge, mature araucarIa….













And below, we are looking up at a mature and mossy peweñ….IMG_7490





Spanish war dogs

The Spanish use of dogs to hunt, kill and torture natives in the Indies is both attested to and illustrated by historians of the sixteenth century.  And, although I came across no written evidence that this practice made its way south to Chile, the fact that it might have does not stretch the imagination.  Hence, the Nuño Beltrán de Mendoza of my novel.

Most of my information having to do with Spanish war dogs and the dogging of natives derives from

Dogs of the Conquest, by John and Jeannette Varner.  51vAH8q8UYL._SL500_AA300_Nuño Beltrán de Mendoza is a slightly renamed version of the historical Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán, about whom the authors write….

” …of noble blood, blond-haired, fair-skinned … in 1526 he assumed command in Pánuco, where he is said to have committed atrocities never before heard of in Nueva España.  Settlers who resisted him, he committed to death without trial; and on one occasion he nailed a Spaniard to a tree by his tongue because the man’s language had been impertinent….  

Readers of Arauco will recognize not only the general appearance of the dogger, but an inspiration for a scene in my novel….

Guzmán’s torture and execution of the native cacique, Tangaxoan, described by Pedro Gómez de San Benito in Arauco (slightly embelished, as was his wont), is depicted in an engraving from the time:

 And here, Balboa has natives accused of sodomy dogged:

Worse images exist, of meat markets where the cuts are human, which I will spare my reader.  But they are brought up by Pedro Gómez de San Benito in Arauco.

And, to conclude, here are some of they ways war dogs were armored….


The ruka of the Mapuche

In the sixteenth century, Mapuche lived in windowless thatched dwellings called ruka.  I doubt that these days any more Mapuche live in ruka than Lakota Sioux live in tipi, but they are still built here and there by Mapuche keeping ancient traditions alive.  Remarkably, these simple, quickly built dwellings, keep people dry in a very wet climate.

Here’s one from the lake district of Chile, erected at a place where indigenous crafts were sold….


And here’s another my wife and I came across by the side of the road, during our travels in southern Chile in 2007:

That same trip, we stayed in a campground run by Mapuche, where not only were we the only gringos … we were the only tent campers.  The other guests were Chilean; they were staying in a ruka.  And the Mapuche were in the process of building another ruka for future guests, so that we were fortunate enough to witness the process of construction.  Here’s the view from our tent….In the background is the ruka the chilenos were staying in.  In the foreground is the ruka being built.  And, in the immediate foreground, are some chickens.

Here are Mapuche at work, thatching the side:

And here’s the ruka, both sides thatched:


The roof structure:

Finally, some interiors…. First, one with a Mapuche loom.

A ruka roof (note the smoke hole).

And last, our young host at the Mapuche campground, Carlos, playing a trutruka for us.  Note the fire built in the middle of the ruka floor, by his feet.



The creation of Arauco’s cover art

I spent my latter youth in Crawfordsville, Indiana, and in the Carnegie library there (which gave weight to the seriousness of reading by resembling a mausoleum) the historical novels that I loved were illustrated, often with a cover image pasted on, and with a few full color images inside, pasted on themselves.  Lesser black and white backups were interlarded here and there. Gulliver!  Natty Bumppo!  Robinson Crusoe!  And much as I am committed to good prose as an adult, I have never outgrown my youthful addiction to the rich perspective that images give the page.

That said, when recently  Arauco was finished as a text, I wanted something exceptional for the cover.  Trolling the net for actual painters, after much searching and travail I stumbled onto Tyler Jacobson, a young illustrator who will definitely knock your socks off, whether he’s portraying captain Ahab or Yoda.  You can check out his work at:  and

And when to my delight Tyler took on the project, I told him that what I wanted for the cover was a depiction of the prologue to the novel, which briefly can be summarized as….

The albino Mapuche shaman, Ñamku, is waiting on a mountain top for the setting of the sun, when he can take off the mask he wears, since daylight is too bright for him.  Behind him, the sacred volcano, Lonkimai, is erupting.  Before him in the distance is fucha lafken–the great sea, which we know as the Pacific.  In his left hand he holds something which has been brought to him across the Atacama Desert.  The messenger bringing this says white people have come from the sea, white people that are both warriors and sorcerers, white people who have killed many Inca.  And now they are coming south, to Arauco.  Ñamku wonders what the coming of these white men means to the Mapuche, and to him, the only white man he has ever known.  And he wonders what the small object he holds might be, for it is in no way like anything Mapuche …. not knowing it is a crucifix.  He waits for sunset, when he will meditate, and pray.  Perhaps the ancestors will give him a vision of what is happening, and what is to be….

Tyler sent me four thumbnails:

Of them he preferred the fourth, in which Ñamku is backlit by the lightning of the erupting volcano behind him.  I liked it very much indeed, but hammered at details, wanting the araucaria trees that would sign the landscape as Chilean … also a more meditative and embracing gesture of the shaman.  The wings of the hawk headdress needed to be buckled, as in Arauco, and I wanted Ñamku wearing a medicine pouch and carrying his sacred drum–the kultrung–etc., etc–also as in the novel.  Tyler went on to this more developed sketch
which gorgeously represents the prologue to the novel.  But … no Mapuche of the sixteenth century wore a belt.  And the medicine pouch of  Ñamku is made of white leather in the novel.  Also, as I wanted the text of the cover to be on the bottom, I asked for more “bleed” there.  So Tyler sent the drawing below,  from which he would paint….
I asked him to include a small crucifix in the left hand at the last minute….  And here is the finished painting for the cover.  Awesome!  And I loved doing it.  Now I can start dreaming about an illustrated edition….

A Meditation on a Poem by Neruda

The chileno perhaps most internationally celebrated, Pablo Neruda, was born in southern Chile, where much of the action of Arauco takes place.  As a man, Neruda loved his native land, and as a poet he wrote about its beauty, its people, and its bloody origin.  His massive poetic summation of his native land–Canto Generalhas at its heart the Spanish invasion of the South American Continent, culminating with the war recounted inArauco, including some of its principal protagonists.  You will find Pedro de Valdivia there as a greedy villain and slaughterer of innocents, Inés de Suárez a bloodthirsty harpy by his side.  You will find Lautaro there also, as noble warrior and heroic martyr….

In his Canto General, in a poem titled Valdivia, Neruda distills the central action of my novel into a scathing diatribe so full of suffering and anger that I personally find it difficult to read.  Here’s my hasty translation of it….

Pablo Neruda

Valdivia (1544)

But they returned.
(Pedro, he was called)
Valdivia, the intrusive captain,
cut my land with the sword
of thieves: “This is yours,
this is yours, Valdés, Montero,
this is yours, Inés, this the site
for the town hall.”
They divided my  land
like a dead donkey.
this fragment of moon and greenery,
devour this river in twilight,”
as the enormous Andes
elevated bronze and blankness.

Arauco appeared.  Adobe, towers,
streets, the silent
master of the house awakened smiling.
He worked with his hands soaked
by its water and its mud, brought
clay and poured mountain water:
but could not be a slave.
Then Valdivia, executioner,
Attacked with fire and death.
So the blood began,
the blood of three centuries, oceanic blood,
the blood atmosphere that overspread my land
and endless time, like no other war.
The irate vulture emerged
from his funereal mourning
and bit the Promauca, broke
the pact written in the silence
of Huelén, in the Andean air.
Arauco began to boil its dish
of blood and stone.
Seven princes
came to parley.
They were imprisoned.
Before the eyes of Arauco
they cut off the noble heads,
the executioners goading each other on.  Completely
soaked by entrails, screaming,
Inés de Suárez, soldier,
supported the imperial necks
with the knees of an infernal harpy.
And she threw them over the palisade,
bathing herself in noble blood,
covering herself with scarlet clay.
So they thought to dominate Arauco.
But here the shaded unity
of tree and stone, spear and countenance,
transmitted this crime in the wind.
The tree on the frontier knew
the fisherman, king, magician,
Antarctic workman knew,
the sources of the Bío Bío knew.
So was born our native war.
Valdivia thrust a dripping lance
Into the rocky entrails
of Arauco, sunk a hand
into its pulse, tightened
his fingers on the heart of Arauco,
spilled the sylvan veins
of the workers,
the pastoral dawn,
ordered the martyrdom
of the kingdom of the forest, put to fire
the master of the forest’s house,,
cut off the hands of the cacique,
returned his prisoners
with noses and ears cut off,
impaled Toqui, assassinated
the girl guerrilla,
and with a bloodied glove
marked the stones of our land,
leaving it full of dead,
and solitude and scars.

Powerful, yet based on more than one paradox.  Implicit in Neruda’s argument there is an edenic side to the rhetorical coin which censures the Spanish invasion of Arauco–a yearning for a past and a people that had no written language, a people who were melded to the land as the poet yearns to be through incantatory language … a “canto,” or song.  In poetry yearning for a time before language–strangely wishing to erase itself–a Chileno attacks the Spanish invasion that ultimately created the native land he celebrates, and his very being as a poet writing Spanish, in strange and failed suicide….

At the time of the Spanish invasion, there were those who thought Eden to be in South America.  And some, then, thought the “Indians” were what later times would call noble savages.  Ercilla, author of La Araucana, was one of them, Neruda following in his footsteps….  And Thomas More drew inspiration for his Utopia from the accounts of the Americas.  To utopians like these the Americas were a kind of returning to the beginning, giving Europe a version of a time machine that afforded an opportunity to begin again–Europe’s second chance at getting things right.  So the Juan Lobo of my novel believed until he discovered, by experiencing conquest, his mistake.  Given the chance to travel back in time to Eden, Europe used technology devised by the Fall of man to turn the return into a bloodbath. And Neruda falls into this utopic tradition, demonizing the invaders, in a magnificent act of compassion rooted in a sense of rootlessness.

But of course, Eden was never in–say–the present Venezuela.  And neither were the natives of the Americas “noble,” the very word Neruda uses in his poem, both ironically and anachronistically, since the Mapuche had no landed nobility, not to mention the “imperial necks” of his poem.  Indeed (in celebrated if not necessarily factual acts) the Mapuche are said to have made Valdivia swallow molten gold as part of the torture leading to his death, and “tasted” of his heart, after….  In “El corazón de Pedro de Valdivia, Neruda–poetry his periphrasis–imaginatively joins the Mapuche in this legendary tasting of Valdivia’s heart by beginning the poem in the second person plural: “Llevamos a Valdivia bajo el árbol.” (We took Valdivia under the tree.)  And with highest euphemism it concludes with Neruda in the first person (“Yo hundí…) sinking in his teeth into, not a heart, but the many metaphors produced by the not mentioned heart….  So, the Neruda who decries Spanish torture in other poems, here identifies with native ritual savagery through poetic circumlocution.  In short, Neruda definitely takes sides….

I write all this in order to situate my novel in a gamut of opinion as to what actually happened when the Spaniards invaded.  My own (impossible) attempt was to represent the times in Arauco as they were, and both peoples as they were, without demonizing or ennobling either.  That is, in my opinion, what makes the best historical novels what they are–-the hard-won sensation fiction can create of being there, as if narration were the transparent air afforded to one emerging from a time and space machine