A Review of Intimate Frontiers: A Literary Geography of the Amazon

Writing the Amazon

by | Jun 3, 2021

A Review of Intimate Frontiers: A Literary Geography of the Amazon, edited by Felipe Martínez-Pinzón and Javier Uriarte (Liverpool University Press, 2019)

Here is how I would translate the experience of reading this book into an image: an old chest, half-opened, slightly scary but quite inviting. As you opened it up, maps, travelogues, legal records, portraits, newspapers and artifacts from the Amazon rainforest would come to light. A letter would be attached to each item; as you read them one by one, you wouldn’t be able to help but trying to connect the dots of a mosaic made out from different landscapes, peoples and periods of this profoundly heterogeneous land. Instead of serving as clues, these affixed notes would provoke questions about your own observations of the trunk’s relics.

Intimate Frontiers: A Literary Geography of the Amazon constantly reminds the reader that a full comprehension of a region is nothing but colonial self-delusion. Edited by Felipe Martínez-Pinzón of Brown University and Javier Uriarte of Stony Brook University), the book’s collected essays present an interdisciplinary search for the imagined geographies and discursive constructs that have shaped the Amazon throughout its modern history. I will attempt to address these archives as if I were opening the coffer and telling a friend about what I have discovered.

What was written by Westerners— “captured” or “collected” by their sometimes captivated, sometimes suspicious scrutiny— is here analyzed as a literary creation responsible for conceptualizing this deeply forested territory, baptized with a Greek female warrior name. The so-called torrid zone is often perceived as a frightening Pandora, unpredictable and enchanting, bouncing between El Dorado—a promised land made of gold—and Green Hell—a representation of the fear of an uncontrollable nature—, two of the most common ideological tropes of the Amazon. Rather than reaffirming these interpretative axes, Uriarte and Martínez-Pinzón point out in the introduction their aim to recover “the traces of everydayness existing in these imperial and modernizing designs” (p.3). Thus, traversing intellectual and material histories of these constructed images seems to be the book’s aim.

The first bundle of objects inside the box encompasses stories of what Susanna Hecht has conceptualized as “the scramble for the Amazon” (Hecht 2013). During the late 19th century, the robust industrial forces of capitalist metropoli in formation depended on the region’s monopoly of rubber production to put the modern world into motion. As new nations, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil disputed and defined frontiers; imperial powers negotiated political alliances with the raw material holders, a movement which was also responsible for putting the Amazon into prospectors’ routes.

In “The Jungle Like a Sunday at Home: Rafael Uribe Uribe, Miguel Triana, and the Nationalization of the Amazon,” Martínez-Pinzón writes about two projects of internal colonization of the Putumayo in Colombia during the first decade of the 20th century: General Rafael Uribe Uribe’s Reducción de Salvajes (1907) and writer and engineer Miguel Triana’s Por el sur de Colombia (1907). Their desire to build a nation through racial mixing was supported by both prominent capitalist thinking and positivist scientific doctrines of their time. Martínez-Pinzón shows that their interpretations of these ideologies were, however, slightly divergent. General Uribe Uribe’s supposedly pro-Indigenous civilizing project left an important document to understand the tutelage regime in which the Putumayo was being subscribed to, treated as peons or commodities; Triana’s case for an Indigenous history in Por el sur shows the complexity between white conquerors, embodied in national discourses, and their troubling contact with the humanness of Indigeneity. Cristóbal Cardemil-Krause’s following essay, “Hildebrando Fuentes’s Peruvian Amazon: National Integration and Capital in the Jungle,” adds to this series an analysis of the politician’s legacy in the Peruvian Amazon, searching for hidden agendas in his intellectual production.

One of the objects in this box is a black book with police records attached to it. Javier Uriarte’s essay, “Splendid testemunhos’: Documenting Atrocities, Bodies, and Desire in Roger Casement’s Black Diaries,” discusses the entanglements of sexuality and violence in the Amazon travelogues of Roger Casement, in which the Irish diplomat describes his cruising encounters in elliptic writing. Highly controversial, the Black Diaries were responsible for Casement’s condemnation for the then-crime of homosexuality by the British government, for which he was hanged in 1916. Uriarte’s analysis of cruising as a political and spatial practice takes into account Casement’s touristy interest in native populations and their bodies in his writing. The queerness of Casement’s gaze and performance produced an analysis against the grain, crafting “at the same time, an utopian transformation of the space of suffering into a space of pleasure through the narration of cruising stories” (96).

Another diary is found adjacent to the black book, accompanied by a pair of small frames. “Malarial Philosophy: The Modernista Amazonia of Mário de Andrade” presents a critical reading of writer and public intellectual Mário de Andrade’s Amazon diaries, The Apprentice Tourist. Following the Modernist Manifesto of 1922, when a substantial part of the southeastern intelligentsia reshaped Brazilian art during a week of soirées, Andrade went out on an expedition to explore the depths of the Brazil he imagined as primitive, thus more virtuous than the West. This reframing of the nation’s self-awareness in regard to civilizing projects, unashamed of its African and Indigenous roots but lacking representatives from these ancestries in their circles, would be epitomized in Macunaíma, the adventures of an Amazon native creature who has as a motto the saying “Ai, que preguiça!” (“Aw, I’m so lazy”!). Mário de Andrade’s “Malarial philosophy” centers André Botelho’s and Nísia Trindade Lima’s text, understanding the dual character of the acclamation of disease in his narrative while comparing it to narratives of progress in the 1920s.

Next to the diary, there’s a whip. in Leopoldo M. Bernucci’s A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: The Cauchero of the Amazonian Rubber Groves, a famous Latin-American character, the settler-colonialist godfather, is analyzed in the figure of the cauchero, the baron of the Amazon rubber-boom. “Tropical gangsters” such as Colonel Tomás Funes, Julio César Arana and Carlos Scharff were all portrayed by white travelers, both curious and horrified by their perversity. The patriarch’s Janus-like personality is explored in Bernucci’s readings of Euclides da Cunha’s essay The Caucheros, as well as Harvard anthropologist William Curtis Farabee’s Indian Tribes of Western Peru, texts that narrate how their “exercise in demagogy and adulation” of powerful visitors “had the effect of keeping the status quo in Amazonia undisturbed for years” (127).

Behind the whip, there’s a stereo playing a voice recording in a language I do not speak—and that I doubt you do. A translated transcript from Nheengatu to English voices stories that do not seem to describe a coherent set of events. Lucia Sá’s “Endless Stories: Perspectivism and Narrative Form in Native Amazonian Literature” presents a multispecies reading of Amazonian Indigenous tales “Como os venenos azá e ineg, para matar peixe, vieram ao mundo,” “A Visita do Céu” and “O mito de Gãipayã e a origem da pupunha.” Abandoning the overused term “myth,” she takes into account anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s concept of perspectivism to understand the processes of shapeshifting between human and non-human agents represented in these narratives. She compares the morphology of fairy tales and Aristotelian texts, in which internal cohesion and conclusion are premises of reason, with an etiological quality of Amerindian narration, in which species are in constant transformation. They encounter their differences in perspective, marry each other and eat each other, enabling something quite similar to what post-structuralist thinkers have called becoming—a metaphysical understanding of matter that states the positivity of difference and preconizes the deconstruction of fixed identities as a mode of thinking.

The second bundle of objects can be seen through glassed shadowboxes. A set of Indigenous flutes made to be played only by men is displaced, accompanied by 19th-century postcards and old film rolls. In Rike Bolte’s “The Western ‘Baptism’ of Yurupary: Reception and Rewritings of an Amazonian Foundational Myth,” the histories of the myth of Yurupari, collected by Italo-Brazilian explorer Ermanno Stradelli—responsible for making it popular around the world—are analyzed in their historicity and usages throughout time.

The film rolls are property of the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA). In “Filming Modernity in the Tropics: The Amazon, Walt Disney, and the Antecedents of Modernization Theory,” Barbara Weinstein analyses one of the most emblematic documents from the U.S. Good Neighbor policies, “The Amazon Awakens” (1944). Produced by Disney studios, the short film portraits the then recently built Fordlândia, a typical U.S. small town built in the middle of the Amazon for rubber production. Scenes of white rescue and industrial happiness are contrasted by a background of tropical rainforest.

The last piece found inside the chest is the image of a ship named Paradise, the allegory of progress during the rubber booms (1879-1945). The El Dorado of capitalism arrives as an allegory in Charlotte Rogers’ essay on Milton Hatoum’s Órfãos do Eldorado. The critical use of myth and history in this complex novella mixes Indigenous Amazonian tales heard and collected by the author with a transgenerational narrative of ongoing conflicts between people from the land and its settled invaders.

As you close the box, a printed image of a woman holding a cashew fruit falls into your lap.  In “Photography, Inoperative Ethnography, Naturalism,” the conventional imagery of what Candace Slater has named the Amazonian “giants,” hegemonic narrative processes in which the diversity of the land becomes the trope of an abstract territory, gets examined through more intimate lenses. Sharon Lockhart’s photography series, Amazon Project, moves from the wide angle and nature-centered portrait to the medium-range shot, portraying the material and mundane in riverine life.

Intimate Frontiers amalgamates definitions that are currently in debate about how to name the social practices and historical events that have built the region. One can find in the book different registers to describe settler-colonialist arrival, such as invasion, as well as “penetration”— the latter a term coined to merge the violence of colonization with its heteropatriarchal imbued logics. The word “Indigenous” – created as a result of Columbus’ swap of the Indies for the Americas – is spelled without upper-case, a decision that should be explained by the editors, if not changed.

Maybe it is a sign of our times, but there seems to be something on the horizon for this book, or someone who was missing from this compilation. The agendas regarding how to think about forests, environments and how to inherit the trouble, as Donna Haraway has theorized about, could have had an object, or many, inside the chest. The world’s lungs think, and the relationships between earth systems, diversity and non-human conceptions in the Amazon are the life of the forest—and its current possible tragedy.

Spring/Summer 2021Volume XX, Number 3

Ana Laura Malmaceda is a writer and a Ph.D. student in Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University, where she studies ecological thinking in the Anthropocene through the perspectives of Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian epistemologies. She holds a master’s degree in Brazilian Studies at the University of Lisbon (2017).

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