Tristes tropiques  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Tristes Tropiques is a memoir, first published in France in 1955, by the anthropologist and structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

It documents his travels and anthropological work, focusing principally on Brazil, though it refers to many other places, such as the Caribbean and India. Although ostensibly a travelogue, the work is infused with philosophical reflections and ideas linking many academic disciplines, such as sociology, geology, music, history and literature.

The book was extremely well-received on its publication. The organizers of the Prix Goncourt lamented that they were not able to award Lévi-Strauss the prize because Tristes Tropiques was technically non-fiction . Georges Bataille wrote a favourable review (Critique, n°105, février 1956) and Susan Sontag classed it as one of the 20th Century's 'great books'.

Contents

The book consists of 40 chapters, organised into nine sections.

Parts 1 to 3 details Levi Strauss' reflections on leaving Europe and visiting the New World and the Tropics, comparing his first impressions with subsequent visits, relating aspects of his academic training as well as his work as a professor during the founding years of São Paulo University.

Part 4 'The Earth and its Inhabitants' sets out a geographical analysis of the development of South American settlements as well as an aside into social structure in India and what is now Pakistan.

Parts 5 through 8 each focus on a Native Brazillian culture group: Caduveo (or Guaycuru), Bororo, Nambikwara and Tupi-Kawahib respectively, while touching on many other topics.

Part 9 'The Return' closes the book with reflections on, among other themes, the nature and purpose of anthropology, the effects of travel on the mind, the roles of Buddhism and Islam in global culture, humankind's place in the universe and our connections to the world and to one another.

Style

The opening sentence, 'I hate travelling and explorers', is notable for its irony and in general the narrative is highly reflexive, often critiquing itself or the author and reader's assumed pretensions, such as a thirst for the 'exotic'.

Though the writing style is fluid, almost conversational at times, the structure of the text is extremely complex, linking together numerous places, times and ideas. For example, Part One: 'An End to Journeying' connects Levi Strauss' first trip to Brazil in 1935 with his escape from France to New York in 1941 and his later visits to South America, in a stylistic imitation of memory .

Levi Strauss frequently makes connections between ostensibly diverse entities or ideas to underline a point. For example, in Chapter 14, he compares the ancient cities of the Indus valley with those of the USA in the mid-twentieth century, implying that Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa could be imagined as foreshadowing contemporary Chicago or São Paulo 'after a prolonged period of involution in the European chrysalis'.

The work maintains an elegiac and poetic tone, lamenting a 'lost' New World but is tempered by a strong ambivalence, perhaps a product of the paradoxical idealized status of the anthropologist as a 'detached observer' who nevertheless remains engaged as a human participant.

In its assessments of the impact of development on the environment, the 'shrinking' of the world through travel and tourism and the consequent emergence of a form of 'monoculture', Tristes Tropiques seems remarkably prescient.





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