In Tristes Tropiques (translated beautifully in this edition by John and Dorren Weightman), Claude Lévi-Strauss presents a nine-part exploration of humans and the environment, and the anthropologist’s role in deciphering that exploration. Though centered mainly on Lévi-Strauss’s trips and research in Brazil, the book also ranges widely over sociology (Fascism, Capitalism, Marxism), religion (Muslem, Islam, Bhuddism), urban development, and education, in such other locations as Martinique, France, Chicago, India, and points in between—the latter mostly on-board ship.
Part one—An End to Journeying—is both introduction and manifesto, beginning, “I hate traveling and explorers.” Right away we learn much about the anthropologist—not so much his curriculum vitae (though there is a bit of that) but more importantly his feelings, his fears, his responses verbal and otherwise to the world around him. We also learn that he is an eloquent writer, an amazing assembler of beautiful imagery, and through-and-through a social scientist, both of the era and beyond.
In part two—Travel Notes—we get a more traditional “How I came to be an anthropologist” story, juxtaposed against what may well be the most detailed essay of a sunset, at 7½ pages, ever penned. We too wonder if, “after all these years, I could ever again achieve such a state of grace.”
Part three—The New World—brings us to the beginning of the heart of the book, concluding with a brilliant essay on urban design in the Americas (North and South), “São Paulo,” that should be required reading for students of architecture and urban planning alike.
Part four—The Earth and Its Inhabitants—takes us deeper into Brazil, literally and figuratively. Except it also takes us to India, takes us deep into the life of true poverty, of the utter failures of the caste system in India. In addition to excellent description, Lévi-Strauss is not shy about his opinions of the place, its people, its political systems—in sum, providing a detailed anthropological review and, in some cases, thesis on the place and its culture.
Part five—Caduveo—brings us to the first of four parts of true, sustained anthropological field study, each dedicated to a different tribe in Brazil’s vast interior. Parts six—Bororo—seven—Nambikwara—and eight—Tufi-Kawahib—are the apex of the book, as Lévi-Strauss and his (some few) associates spend dedicated time with each tribe, learning in fabulous detail about the culture of each. Though geographically similar, the tribes were otherwise absolutely unique in marriage, family life, religious belief, rituals, village design (or lack thereof), and the like.
Finally, part nine—The Return—is just that: a return from Lévi-Strauss’s long days in the field, and a closing discourse (following an almost dreamlike, unfinished play/parable he created called “The Apotheosis of Augustus”) about religion, about anthropology, about witness and inclusion.
Tristes Tropiques, then, is both memoir and (social) scientific field journal, with more than a sprinkling of travel writing mixed in to which Lévi-Strauss, from the get-go, confesses so strongly against. It presents a series of additional paradoxes that may not seem interrelated, but all relate to the variable human condition and therefore are critically connected. The challenge is what can be done about these problems—like the destruction of habitat and cultures both by the westward march of “progress,” like the incredible overpopulation and utter poverty of India, like religious intolerance. There is no solution presented, of course, but there is a concluding seed of hope, a sort of cosmic understanding, that presents itself sometimes in large and more often in very small, detailed ways.
Lévi-Strauss’s stylistic devices are primarily three-fold: imagery, metaphor, and inference. He has a wonderful ability simply to describe. He has a keen sense of comparison, sometimes sweeping but more often using metaphor in specific circumstances, sharp phrases. And, as a scientist, he has the important capability to infer from observation, at least partly answering the great scientific question: What does it all mean? Or at least: What does it mean in this particular situation, in this specific place? These are all his greatest strengths—that and timing, and by that I mean getting to these tribes before they too evaporated.
He may have two literary weaknesses: too much description (he who lives by the sword dies by the sword, and all that), and too strong opinions, which can contradict scientific validity. But as Tristes Tropiques is both memoir and field report, and accordingly social criticism, certainly he is entitled to that. Fortunately, we are too.