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Procession of Saints 

Shamoon Zamir
Review: Scandals in the House of Birds
Nathaniel Tarn (with Martín Prechtel)
Scandals in the House of Birds: Shamans and Priests on Lake Atitlán
(New York: Marsilio 1997) xiv + 397pp, $24.95 [See note 1 below]
This piece is 5,500 words or about fourteen pages long.

[1] As Tarn points out in his acknowledgements, all the writing has been done by Tarn himself. Prechtel, who was born and raised in New Mexico but who moved to Guatemala in the 1970s and went on to rise high in the indigenous religious hierarchy, is acknowledged as co-author in recognition of a long working collaboration and friendship (ix).
[2] I am thinking here of Pound’s readings in the work of Leo Frobenius and Chinese culture, Eliot’s reading of Frazer and other contemporary anthropologists, the use of Native American and comparative mythological materials in Olson, Snyder and Dorn and Duncan’s use of Australian indigenous cultures in the early sections of The H.D. Book. Eliot and Snyder both had some academic training in anthropology. In Muriel Rukeyser’s case I am thinking in particular of her study of Franz Boas left unfinished at the time of her death. Jay Wright, an African-American poet whose work is not as widely known as it should be, has made accomplished use of anthropological researches into African cultures.
[3] There is no space here to survey this rich career. For outlines of Tarn’s life and his work in anthropology and poetry, see Shamoon Zamir, "On Anthropology and Poetry: An Interview with Nathaniel Tarn," Boxkite No. 2 (1998), 152-190, and Shamoon Zamir, "Scandals in the House of Anthropology: notes towards a reading of Nathaniel Tarn", Xcp: Cross Cultural Poetics No.5 (1999), 99-122. The present review is extracted from the Xcp piece. The best introduction to Tarn’s work on anthropology and poetry is his collection of essays Views from the Weaving Mountain: Selected Essays in Poetics and Anthropology (Albuquerque: An American Poetry Book/ University of New Mexico Press, 1991).
[4] Nathaniel Tarn, "A Letter to Michael Heller", Talisman No. 11 (1993), 87. The letter is dated 1989.
[5] Zamir, "On Anthropology and Poetry: An Interview with Nathaniel Tarn," ), 177.


ENTRED on the signal contributions of poet- translator- anthology maker Jerome Rothenberg and anthropologist- translator- editor Denis Tedlock, the ethnopoetics movement has provided since the late 1960s a forum for exchange and collaboration between poets and anthropologists unique in the history of American culture. While ethnopoetics may have lost the intensity and drive that one associates with the term ’movement’ by the second half of the 1980s, it is by no means a dead project. Ethnopoetics now represents a large body of work, built up over more than two decades now, in which notions of the primitive, the comparison of cross-cultural poetics, the problems of translation, the representation of performance, and the practice of collaborative textual work have been investigated by both poets and anthropologists.
Along with Rothenberg and Tedlock, Tarn is one of the foundational figures in ethnopoetics. Though not an instigator and organiser within the movement as Rothenberg and Tedlock were, Tarn has nevertheless produced a remarkable range of work as poet, ethnographer, anthropologist, translator, editor and theoretician of ethnopoetics that places his contribution to the movement second to none. In one sense he is unique within ethnopoetics and equally within the longer history of the dialogue between American poets and anthropology that stretches from Pound and Eliot, through to the likes of Olson, Duncan, Rukeyser, Snyder, Dorn and Jay Wright: [note 2] he is the only one to have produced substantial and accomplished bodies of work as a poet and as an anthropologist and the only one to have written at length on the interactions of literature and anthropology. [note 3]
Scandals is a synthesising of over forty years of fieldwork among, research on and thinking about the Tzutujil Maya living on the shores of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala (’House of Birds’ is a translation of the indigenous name for the pre-Columbian Tzutujil capital, now in ruins at the foot of Volcano San Pedro [383]). Narrated through multiple narratives and many voices, the book deals with a religious conflict between indigenous religion and Christianity. The theft of masks covering Maximón, a Mayan wooden statue venerated since pre-Columbian times, and the later return of one of the masks over twenty years later, is the core around which are spun accounts of Mayan mythology, ritual practices, religious festivals, individual life histories, local social conflicts and the horrors of Guatemala’s national politics. Nine years before the publication of the book, writing of the struggle between poetry and anthropology throughout his career as "the battle between the angel of creation and the angel of the record", Tarn refers to the project as "the last possible (for me) throw to the record." [note 4]. More recently, with the book in press, Tarn has referred to it as "a sort of experimental ethnography". [note 5]
Certainly, if one comes to the book from the world of contemporary anthropology, the discussions about the writing of ethnographies provide the means for getting a good grasp on it. But Scandals is not only the work of "the angel of the record"; it is only "sort of an experimental ethnography". It is, in fact, a book that resists generic categorisation. It is important to see the book as part of a very long exploration of the interactions of poetry and anthropology by someone who is both a poet and anthropologist. From this perspective the book can be situated within a continuum of exploratory action that stretches far beyond the ’poetics’ of ethnographic writing.
The discussion of Scandals here focuses on two aspects of Tarn’s work which are a consistent concern throughout the career: the attempt to relativise the interrogative and interpretative authority of the ethnographer- anthropologist without jettisoning "veracity" altogether, and, perhaps more complexly, to move through the confluence of different cultural forms and traditions towards a process of mutual translation and displacement across cultural boundaries.

Janet Rodney, Tarn’s wife, and Dolores Ratzan, 1979. Janet Rodney, Tarn’s wife, and Dolores Ratzan, 1979
Photograph copyright © Nathaniel Tarn 1979, 1999


[6] Nigel Rappaport, "Edifying Anthropology: Culture as Conversation; Representation as Conversation", in James et al, eds., After Writing Culture, p.181

[7] Arnold Krupat, Ethnocriticism: Ethnography, History, Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p.3. All further references are given in the text.


Challenges to the traditional authorial status of the ethnographer are now widespread in contemporary anthropology and its calls for polyvocality and "an eclecticism of narrational style", [note 6] though theory tends to outstrip practice here. Both the theory and practice of cross-cultural translation are harder to define and pin down. Arnold Krupat refers to such critical translation as "ethnocriticism". For him "the ethnocritical perspective manifests itself in the form of multiculturalism" which he takes "to refer to that particular organisation of cultural studies which engages otherness and difference in such a way as to provoke an interrogation of and a challenge to what we ordinarily take as familiar and our own."[note 7]
"To practice ethnocriticism", he argues, "will require real engagement with the epistemological and explanatory categories of Others, most particularly as these animate and impel Other narratives. The necessary sorts of movement, therefore, are not only those between dominant Western paradigms but also those between Western paradigms and the as-yet-to-be-named paradigms of the Rest" (113). Krupat acknowledges that in some "absolute sense" there cannot be a "nonviolent criticism of the discourses of Others, not even an ethnocriticism" but rightly refuses to take this as the total defeat of the critical enterprise: "The question is whether, short of this absolute horizon, it is worth pursuing certain projects of inquiry in the interest of a rather less violent knowledge" (6). Tarn’s sense that the poet’s pursuit of the confluence of a literary imagination and anthropology is a project worth undertaking, no matter how utopian, chimes with Krupat’s injunction to sustain critical practice this side of an "absolute horizon." In this regard it is telling that Krupat singles out Rothenberg’s work as translator of Native American materials as "the nearest approximation" to an ethnocritical practice (196). The reason given for the choice is that Rothenberg "importantly mediates idealist and materialist concerns, paying at least some measure of attention to ’syntactic, semantic, lexical, prosodic’ elements of the original, while feeling quite unconstrained to cut loose from those elements in search of the essentially... ’poetic’ dimensions of the original" (195-6). Here certainly it would be possible to place Tarn’s simultaneous pursuit of veracity and the imaginative transmutation of fact as a closely kindred project.

Volcano and lake
South side of Santiago Atitlán, with Volcano San Pedro.
Photograph copyright © Nathaniel Tarn 1979, 1999

One aspect of ethnopoetics which is important for an ethnocritical practice and for any considerations of contemporary cross-cultural dialogue is what David Murray identifies as "the breaking away from the closed nature of the literary text" through a focus on performance rather than the lyric voice. Murray’s commentary is worth quoting at some length because not only does it summarise the issues of textuality with great clarity, but also because its focus on fragmentation and on Tarn himself usefully introduces issues central to a reading of Scandals:
In questioning the closure of the literary text, [ethnopoetics] opens up formal possibilities of engagement with a huge mass of material formerly excluded from ’literature’, and takes up the fundamental challenge offered to our society by potential contact with an unprecedented range of cultures. This new approach can then undermine the power of our own culture to use other cultures only to reaffirm our exclusionary sense of our superiority. Nathaniel Tarn, as both poet and anthropologist, has recognised the issues very clearly. In talking about the sense of discontinuity experienced in modern cultures, he argues that ’much of our major poetry has tried to deal with this in a conservative sense, the sense of these fragments I have shored against my ruin. It is perhaps for this reason that it seems to be form that mimes the cultural sparagmos [flying apart], whereas the content continues to proclaim a desire for the whole.’ Rather than lament cultural discontinuity, then, we can see it offering reopenings through which we can become aware of the diversity that had been closed to us, and by rooting ourselves firmly in our historical and cultural situation can begin to recognise the specificity of other cultural moments not as totalities but as fragments, since it is from fragments that we have learned since modernism aesthetically to operate.[note 8]

[8] David Murray, Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing and Representation in North American Indian Texts (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), p.94.


Scandals is, at first sight, the work of the recording angel, but this angel has been for so long locked in a struggle with his twin, the angel of creation, that it is not easy to hold to such clear distinctions. Having abandoned a career in anthropology some thirty years earlier, Tarn now returns to the place where he first did fieldwork as a doctoral student and to the subject of his earliest contributions to ethnography. We are again in Santiago on the shores of Lake Atitlán among the living Tzutujil Maya. The central player in the drama is again Maximón, the ancient figure of polymorphic identifications which include the Mam and Martín, pre-Columbian Mayan deities of immense power, Christ, Judas and a host of other indigenous and non-indigenous figures drawn from religious and secular histories.

Procession of Saints, 1979
Procession of Saints, during Titular Fiesta Santiago, 1979
Photograph copyright © Nathaniel Tarn 1979, 1999



The narrative begins in 1950 when a Catholic priest attempts to destroy the Maximón statue and steals two of the masks that cover the head of the statue. This assault sets off religious and political conflicts or "scandals" involving practitioners of folk religion, Catholics and Protestants that last into the present and eventually pull into their vortex the national government and the international community. Having mapped the origins and nature of the conflicts in the 1950s, the book narrates the successful efforts in the 1970s to return one of the masks to Santiago (largely through Tarn’s interventions) from an un-named European museum (where Tarn was forced to have the mask placed when he had discovered it many years earlier). The return of the mask leads not to a period of renewal and re-integration but to the eruption of new local conflicts. The later sections of the book outline major changes in Atitlán between 1950 and 1990 and the book concludes with a chilling account of the violence of "the terror" visited upon the Maya by Guatemala’s government and its army since the 1970s. The last few pages are "a memorial to the dead", a long list of those killed from the Atitlán region, including many who have appeared in the book.
As the narrative of the scandals moves from the 1950s towards the present, there is a counter-movement towards the past. In the first half of the book the chapters dealing with the various stages of the scandals are interspersed with chapters telling "stories of the early earth". Here, several ’informants’ recorded by Tarn take the reader back to a pre-Columbian world, indeed to the very origins of the Mayan world. When the order of the ancient world of the ancestors is disrupted by the spread of sexual promiscuity, the Mam or Maximón is created by the ancestors to restore order. Though Mam does this successfully, the growth of his own individual powers rapidly exceeds the original intentions of the ancestors and becomes in turn the source of new disorder. The ancestors are forced at this point to dismantle Maximón, allowing him to be re-assembled only when his services are needed.
The inter-cutting of the narratives of the contemporary religious conflicts with the stories of the early earth creates a kind of mirror effect. The movement from chaos to order to a new disorder in the latter is matched by a similar movement from conflict through the religious renewal promised by the return of the mask to the new conflicts in the former. Where the narrative of the scandals ends in the horrors of "the terror", the stories of the early earth culminate in a dark account of "the Black Monster Wars" in which the Mam puts an end to the continued sacrifice of human victims by defeating the Monster. But to speak of mirroring here is to invite a separation of the two sets of narratives as ’history’ and ’myth’ and to imply that Tarn may be guilty of a reductive mythicisation of the specificities of the historical record. In fact, the structuring and narrative strategies of Scandals suggest that Tarn refuses the separation of myth and history as a false dichotomy. As his own direct commentary on the iconography of Maximón makes clear, the ’myths’ that surround this figure are a tangled record of a complex religious and cultural conflict dating back to at least the period of conquest; the stories are oral palimpsests, indigenous forms for sustaining and shaping memories of historical experience. From this perspective the unfolding of the contemporary religious scandals becomes not a mirror image of a ’mythic’ past but part of a continuing and living narrative of the ancient Mam. The "memorial to the dead" which closes the book rightly concludes with the assertion that "Maximón, as Lord of the Dead and pacific mediator both, continues to have his work cut out for him in Santiago Atitlán" (Scandals 363).
This intermingling of the two narratives strands is not an instance of Tarn taking liberties with the materials but a narrative strategy which is a self-conscious adaptation of the use of anachronistic detail by the indigenous storytellers. In one of the narratives of the Black Monster Wars, the teller (one ’Weep Wizard’ -- all the tellers are identified by their nicknames), explains that after the death of the Monster many of his prisoners were found transformed into horses: "It turns out they have been lost for years; they were disappeared; they are all crying and weeping; they don’t know where they are" (Scandals 130, emphasis added). It is impossible to read of ’the disappeared’ of the early earth here without thinking of the connotations of this phrase in contemporary Latin American political history. The choice of words here may reflect the intentions of Tarn as translator as much as those of the teller himself, but similar anachronisms occur throughout the accounts of the ancestors: references to "the government", to "ladinos" and to Christian materials all appear in tales of the pre-conquest world (egs. Scandals 7, 12). Other ways in which Tarn brings his writing into dialogue with indigenous narrative writing and so opens up his work to indigenous ways of knowing the world can be seen in his use of narrative fragmentation and a style that steers away from ’poetic’ language towards a ’dry’ and more ’matter of fact’ address.

Leaders of Cofradias
Leaders of Cofradias (religious confraternities) with Saints during a procession. Drinks and smokes are a holy obligation.
Photograph copyright © Nathaniel Tarn 1979, 1999

The summaries of the scandals and of the stories of the early earth presented above are extremely simplified, linear versions of what in the book appear as jagged, heterogeneous, overlapping, digressive and sometimes mutually contradictory narratives told through a collage of many voices and documentary sources. The narratives are derived form interviews recorded by Tarn in the 1950s and 1970s, with each segment dated and each speaker identified. Tarn himself is one among these voices, appearing throughout in the third person. He is in fact three voices because Tarn from the 1950s and Tarn from the 1970s are distinguished and to these two must be added the Tarn from the 1990s who is writing Scandals. The narrative structure of the book is further complicated by the emergence of other narrative and discursive strands as the book progresses. The first of these is a series of three chapters which are "Episodes from the Life of Nicholás Chiviliu Tacaxoy, Portrait of an Aj’kun [shaman]". Chiviliu was teacher to both Tarn and Martín Prechtel, Tarn’s collaborator on the book, and his own account of his life introduces autobiography and life-history to the generic proliferations of the book. Two chapters focused on Prechtel himself in his role of Primer Mayor (the official responsible for the rituals of Holy Week), continue with aspects of life history but are primarily accounts of the complex rituals of Holy Week. The density of detail in the ritual accounts makes them almost ungraspable and borders on surrealist estrangement. Two chapters of anthropological theorisation in which Tarn himself is the main voice come up against this density and the intricacies of the histories of Maximón in their attempt to order and schematise the materials towards social scientific understanding. Finally, there are two chapters in which historical accounts of social and cultural change and of "the terror" are derived in large part from textual sources.
The reader of Scandals experiences then something akin to what Lisette Josephides calls "ethnographic excess" in a description of her own work among the Kewa people of Highland New Guinea: "I describe the Kewa, and allow them to describe themselves, in long and untidy narratives that bring together different kinds of materials: solicited self-accounts, my observations of the eliciting strategies in people’s daily interactions, their fights, disputes and so on. These excessive accounts break up a continuous narrative, making untenable any single or generalising picture of ’Kewa culture’."[note 9]

[9] Lisette Josephides, "Representing the Anthropologist’s Predicament", in James et al. eds., After Writing Culture, pp. 24-5.


Scandals matches Josephides’s strategies of excess but pushes things further by withholding a great deal of contextual and descriptive information in places where these might be expected. (This is what was meant by the reference to the sometimes ’dry’ or ’matter of fact’ style of Scandals above). There is nothing in Scandals resembling the kind of sustained geographical, social or cultural survey which an ethnographer or travel writer might use to locate his or her subject. There is no local colour description. There is little or no description of the physical appearance of the principal characters, of the way they talk or gesture in their performance of the stories of Maximón or the scandals. This distinguishes the presentations of Scandals from the work of a translator like Dennis Tedlock who is a pioneer in the textual representation of performance but aligns them to the modes of representation used within the tales of the Mayan narrators themselves (as these are set down by Tarn himself). [note 10]

[10] I am not qualified to assess the representative nature of Tarn’s presentations of Mayan narration. For the purposes of the discussion here I am simply taking on trust the faithfulness or justness of his translations.


There is no account of the reasons and motivations behind Tarn’s own ethnographic researches or of methodological issues. And there is certainly little in the way of a personalised or autobiographical narrative involving Tarn himself. The reader is denied, in other words, the security either of clear authorial guidance within unequivocal explanatory frameworks or of thick description working within generically recognisable narratives of social science or travelogue. He or she is disoriented and is forced to play both ethnographer and detective, piecing together information as it emerges in fragments.
The first chapter of Scandals can serve as an illustration of some of these techniques. It opens with the following paragraph:

We are on Lake Atitlán in the Department of Sololá, Guatemala, Central America. It is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, ringed with hills and three majestic volcanoes, home to several Tzutujil and Cakchikel Maya Indian villages. The Maya here speak two of the languages in the Quichean group. Many of the dialects within the languages differ noticeably. (1) [note 11]

[11] For an exoticist, cliché-ridden contrast to this, compare the opening of Secrets of the Talking Jaguar: Unmasking the Mysterious World of the Living Maya (New York: Joseph P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1998), Martín Prechtel’s own account of his apprenticeship under Nicholás Chiviliu and his life among the Tzutujil Maya. Prechtel’s book is, to say the least, disappointing. (See note 8 above on Prechtel’s collaboration with Tarn on Scandals). There is, unfortunately, no time to discuss it here though a comparison with Tarn’s text would be useful. Another text which may provide a productive point of comparison is Dennis Tedlock’s very accomplished Breath on the Mirror: Mythic Voices and Visions of the Living Maya (San Francisco: Harper, 1993)


This provides a toehold but little more and before the bare bones of this description can be fleshed out Tarn rapidly shifts direction in the next paragraph, moving to a long quotation from his own work from the early 1950s which gives a clear and unadorned description of the physical appearance and location of the Maximón statue. The description offers no explanation of the nature of Maximón, of his religious associations or of his function in the religious culture of Santiago. Instead of such an explanation the reader is given another lengthy quotation, this time from the Latin American Edition of Time Magazine for April 2nd, 1951. The extract, from an article titled "Devilish Deity", introduces the religious culture of Santiago and gives a brief account of the attack on the Maximón statue:

The raw-boned Tzutujil Indians of mountain-bound Santiago Atitlán (pop. 10, 000) have a religion of their own, a mixture of undigested bits of Roman Catholicism and queer survivals of paganism. Their favourite deity is a raffish, four foot idol named Maximón, who smokes cigars, wears four hats and a leer. Smoking is the least of Maximón’s vices. With gleeful perversity, the Indians assign to him an uninhibited libido and a rollicking disregard for the Ten Commandments. (2)
The extract then goes on to describe the displaying of the statue during Holy Week, the tensions between the Catholic priest, Padre Recinos, and Chiviliu and the followers of Maximón, the firing of three shots at the statue by Recinos, the return of Recinos six weeks later and his attack on the statue. When later Recinos returns offering to say Good Friday Mass, he is met with cold silence: "Turning to go, the padre shook his fist at the leering Maximón. ’That,’ he cried, ’is the work of the devil.’ ’Padre,’ said brujo Nicolás, ’we are sons of the devil’" (3). The whole founding moment of the scandals which Tarn will trace with great care and sensitivity are treated by Time as a pathetic comedy of "drunken dances, a caricature of a Passion Play" and slapstick farce.

Carving by Nicolas Chavez, 1979
Telinel (shaman responsible for dressing the Mam) with Mam: Atiteco Carving by Nicolas Chavez, 1979,
Photograph copyright © Nathaniel Tarn 1979, 1999


The ethnocentrism of the value judgements and pop-anthropology in the extract is extreme and makes the commentary on Maximón and on the conflict unreliable. On the other hand, such as it is this is the only ethnographic and documentary information provided on these matters so far. Tarn makes no comment on the account provided by Time. But as the book unfolds it becomes clear that the extract from Time presents a reduced image in negative of the main concerns of the whole book. What appears in Time as a sad mix of "undigested bits of Roman Catholicism and queer survivals of paganism" will slowly emerge as a profound and complex cultural syncretism mediating religious and political conflicts over many centuries. The leering and lascivious Maximón will come forth as a figure at the centre of rituals of fertility and cyclical renewal in which the Christian concept of sin is out of place. What is presented as petty squabbling will become the entrance to a long and intricate religious and historical drama. Comedy and violence, used as dissmissive strategies by Time, will be seen to be at the core of the folk mythology of the Maya and of the strange epic Scandals will reveal itself to be. And Nicolás Chiviliu, treated here as a "brujo (witch doctor)" will be seen to be an aj’kun or shaman of great authority.
Tarn in fact concludes the chapter with an account of Chiviliu’s response to the article after Tarn had read it to him in the early 1950s:
"Well, I never said the we were sons of the devil! Can you imagine me saying that? But he did have a pistol, that’s true. Only thing is: the cofrades [religious officials] rushed him before he could fire. One bullet fell on the ground and we now have it at the bottom of Mam’s clothes box!" Nicolás does not use the name "Maximón." He would accept "the Mam" or "Don Pedro" or "the Old Guy." But not "Maximón." (3)
Chiviliu, Mayan shaman, begins to set the record straight and the inclusion of the bullet in the statue’s clothes box begins to suggest something of Maximón’s powers of cultural incorporation and survival. But Nicolás’s refusal to use the name ’Maximón’ moves the reader towards other unexplained issues: Why is Nicolás so adamant about not using ’Maximón’ and why does Tarn continue to use it? What is at stake in the choice of names? These questions are left unanswered as the next chapter shifts to the telling of stories about the coming of chaos to the world of the Power Men and Power Women "in the very old days" (4).
Tarn’s uses of discontinuity and collage are clearly indebted to modernist literary techniques but they also draw upon the structures and techniques of Mayan stories and storytelling. In Chapter 2 the spread of adultery and the beginnings of chaos in the ancient world are told by five different narrators, each with a slightly different version of the same events. In one version there are six Power People, in another twelve and in another twenty-four. In one version there are many Power Men and only one woman and in another there are twelve men and twelve women. The narrators often acknowledge that there are different versions or that they themselves are not sure of the details. The language lacks metaphoric richness and the presentation is usually as direct and unadorned as it is in Tarn’s own commentaries. And the narratives can change direction as abruptly as Tarn does in the first chapter. In the midst of the narrative of adultery there can be sudden digressions about the uses of "lime talc or white rock" and about the weapons of the ancients (7).
This is not to suggest that the writing or the telling of the stories is boring or flat. Their beauty lies precisely in their reliance on narrative parataxis, the clarity and minimalism of their telling, their use of the language of the everyday for what are sacred dramas, and their rapid mood shifts. Here is "Red Banana" telling the story of the ancient "merchants" chopping down the soft coral tree within which the Maximón is contained:
So the merchants go home and they get something to eat. ’He doesn’t look so good, he doesn’t cut much of a figure,’ they decide, ’but he’s our boy.’ They all get their files the next day, to sharpen their machetes. But the Ultimo [the youngest] has had a dream. ’This tree doesn’t want sharp machetes: rub them on rocks to make them dull,’ he tells them. It’s true: if you put a sharp machete into coral wood, it will stick just like cork. So First Merchant comes up to the tree and asks if he is ready for his pain. The tree says he is. ’Remember everything we told you yesterday because we are your makers and we will take you apart if you disobey us,’ First Merchant says.
So they give him a first stroke on his feet, plaaaam. With each chop, they give him an order. They get to his head and the head is going up and down, nodding, like this. Plaam. ’You feel that?’ they ask. At every stroke they hear the tree going ’A! E! O! Oh! Ay! Ou! A! E!’ while they are making and shaping him. When they have finally carved him out, he is about this big. ’Well, can you stand up now?’ they ask. ’He looks pretty good this man made of pain,’ they say to themselves in congratulation. (51)
The representation here of the emerging Maximón as both a cartoon-like character suffering cartoon pain and simultaneously (and beautifully) a "man made of pain" illustrates the shifts and range of moods in these tales and also the chimerical and contradictory nature of Maximón himself.

[12] On some level of course it could be said that the Mayan narratives share the style and tone of Tarn’s narratives since Tarn is in fact the translator of the former. But here too, allowing for stylistic variations among translators, I am assuming that what Tarn presents in everyday language and as comedy is also given in the original in more or less equivalent form.


Tarn’s own narrations of the day to day manifestations of the religious and social conflicts surrounding the Maximón statue often share much of the style and tone of the Mayan narratives. [note 12] The context for the following extract is the state of tension and paranoia following the theft of the masks. Chiviliu, Tarn and Salvador Popsoy ("Sacristán and escribano of cofradía Santa Cruz" [367]) go drinking. Suddenly, Popsoy denounces Tarn as a filthy foreigner and a spy.

Tarn stomps off in a calculated rhetorical gesture and, as he turns around, finds an energetic scuffle going on between Salvador and Nicolás for the possession of what turns out to be a common or garden Missal. Nicolás had mentioned this volume before as containing prayers to all the saints, including the Mam, and had told Tarn that he might want it back. Popsoy won’t let go, but kicks, punches and shout in and out of the bar while cofrades try to help the Chiv: it is the nearest thing to a fight that Tarn has ever witnessed in these parts.
Finally, Popsoy, gives the book a resounding kiss, then slams it down furiously onto a window ledge. Exit Nicolás wild-eyed and dishevelled from the bar, half-disbelieving that he has the book back.
On and off during the day the memory of his bout came back to [Nicolás] and he wove it into his costumbre [religious ritual], weeping a ritual dirge: ’Ay, Don Pedro, Lord San Simon...(sob) hurts...(sob) hurts bitterly,’ enumerating Popsoy’s evil dispositions in his prayers and altogether managing to sound most lamentable to any saint within earshot. All of this interspersed, as usual, with fits of good humour in which he was as boisterous and amusing as ever. (42-3)
The comparison between the Mayan narratives and Tarn’s is meant to suggest a common ground but this should not obscure the fact that there is significant variation of tone, style and intention in the discourses of both the indigenous speakers and the anthropologist. Tarn in particular moves from a mix of storytelling and documentary narrative to historical survey and, most importantly, anthropological interpretation and theorisation in the two chapters near the close of the book. These chapters appear at first to be attempts to synthesise a coherent schematisation of the fragmentary and heterogeneous material relating to Maximón but the two chapters offer two quite different, and to some extent contradictory, interpretations of the same materials. The first of the theoretical chapters, "Understanding the Mam and the Martín in the Nineteen-Fifties", is based largely on the conclusions of Tarn’s doctoral work; the second, "Understanding the Mam and the Martín in 1979" revises the conclusions drawn in the 1950s.
Writing up the first field work in 1952-53, it made sense to divide people into the "Men of Martín," the "Men of Jesucristo," and the "Men of Maximón" - with Maximón as an impure, ambivalent figure, less "native" than Martín, less "Catholic" than Jesucristo. Maximón might then be seen as a vortex of conflict conceivably extending back in time through Atiteco history and representing everything which, in Maya-Christian syncretism, had never properly functioned, fused or formed itself into a unified whole.
Later understandings, in 1979 and beyond, were to dispel this tidy scheme in most of its details... (67)
In 1979 the Maximón appears in a fluid and processual relationship with the Martín and Jesucristo, working as transformer within the conflicting pulls of linear and cyclical patterns in the Atiteco calendrical year, and now associated with various female and bisexual elements.
The 1979 interpretation clearly supersedes the 1950s one so why include the earlier one? The juxtaposition of the two can certainly be taken to indicate a progressive growth in the sophistication and complexity of understanding, but it also makes clear that such theorisations cannot be in any absolute sense definitive. Tarn stands back from any claims of unequivocal interpretative authority. There is no revisionary theorisation from the 1990s; there is only Scandals itself in which the theorisations themselves appear in relativised dialogue with other descriptions of the same reality. This is not say that Tarn is proposing the defeat of the critical endeavour by the claim that there are ’only stories.’ It is more accurate to say that his strategies of juxtaposition are a caution against the potential violence of critical translation noted by Krupat and a move towards ethnocritical practice.
If in the 1990s, in place of a new, even more sophisticated interpretation all we have is the marvellous architecture of Scandals, what are we to make of this exercise in parataxis? From one perspective the whole thing adds up to "a sort of experimental ethnography". From another perspective one could argue that Scandals is an epic for our time. In a parenthesis near the start of the chapter in which we first encounter the "stories of the early earth", Tarn says he is "trying to put together a great sequence of stories by entering it at one point or another" (4). This suggests a lost original, an ancient folk epic of sorts of which only fragments survive in the present. Paul Radin, working with the Trickster tales of the Winebago, took a similar set of assumed ’fragments’ and attempted to force them into a coherent, chronological sequence. Robert Graves tried to tie together Greek myths from different times and sources into single narratives. Tarn does not make this kind of mistake. He does not try to create a ’Homeric’ synthesis out of the multiple narratives of local conflicts and squabbles. He accepts collage as an appropriate form for what is in effect an epic for the age of economic and cultural globalisation. From the obscure religious conflicts in a small village in Guatemala in the 1950s Scandals takes us back to the very beginnings of the world and forwards to our own time in which "the Indian village is being pulled into the expanding economy of Guatemala and beyond that the late-Capitalist economy, while the ’huge ecological and structural problems’ of Santiago are being ignored by those who do the pulling" (319). As Tarn himself notes in the fifteenth section of his The Beautiful Contradictions:
The destruction of history by not setting down the history you know
by refusing to be a witness to your times is a crime against the earth
If Scandals is indeed "a last throw" by the angel of the record, it is a record made by an imagination in a state of attention towards the meanings of memory, survival and transformation in a shrinking world.


Shamoon Zamir
Shamoon Zamir is a Reader in American Literature at King’s College London and co-editor of Talus Editions, a poetry small press. His previous publications include DARK VOICES: W.E.B. DU BOIS AND AMERICAN THOUGHT (Chicago University Press, 1995).
Photograph copyright © John Tranter, 1998, 1999


This is a review of Nathaniel Tarn (with Martín Prechtel)
Scandals in the House of Birds: Shamans and Priests on Lake Atitlán
(New York: Marsilio 1997) xiv + 397pp, $24.95 [See note 1 below]
You can order Nathaniel Tarn’s books directly from the Internet. Choose the bookstore closest to you, and select the live link . . . 
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