e-mail us


Two cultures seen in shifting mirror


By Sylvia Iparraguirre, translated by Hardie St. Martin
Curbstone Press, 285 pages, $15.95


Any story is given to the reader by the narrator from his or her particular point of view. The reader, often unconsciously, accepts the narrator’s rendition as truth, rarely as a story told from a singular and therefore biased perspective. Tierra del Fuego, written by Argentinean human rights advocate Sylvia Iparraguirre, does not allow its readers such comfortable naiveté.

Iparraguirre chronicles the true story of Yamana Indian Jemmy Button. As an experiment, Button was kidnapped from his native home in 1830 to be civilized in London so that he could eventually return to his Yamana culture to civilize others. The results of this experiment were disastrous: Button was later charged and tried for leading a massacre of British missionaries.

But Iparraguirre’s novel is not that simple. Perhaps few stories born in Latino culture and formed in the Spanish language are simple, for they are seldom linear. Readers accustomed to works penned by Anglo authors may find Tierra del Fuego a bit disorienting. Iparraguirre’s tale begins in a present but flows through past and future seamlessly.

The excursions into the present are a jarring reminder that this account is a story. And like all stories, it is shaped by the teller. Narrator John William Guevera receives an overdue letter from the British Royal Navy in a remote hamlet of Argentina requesting details regarding Jemmy Button, with whom he had sailed. On the surface, Guivera’s task seems simple: to tell what he knows of Button. The book itself is structured to be Guivera’s response to the British Navy. But the letter chafes Guivera, upsetting the easy, daily routine of his life. The request becomes a gadfly spurring Guivera to confront himself.

Guivera directs his reply to the name signed at the end of the request. That the name is illegible, rendering the correspondent unknowable, becomes indicative of the narrator’s disposition toward the British. Or is it the author’s disposition? Again, we are given a point of view, not just to be accepted, but recognized as a particular perspective.

Guivera delves into his own past recounting his birth to an Argentinean woman and British man. Such detail may seem unnecessary in response to the letter’s inquiry. But as Guivera contemplates the request, he understands the particulars asked for are hollow without a meaningful context. For Guivera, a literate bilingual man of two cultures, no information about Button would be worthwhile unless he can explain what Button meant to him. How could Button’s significance be understood without an understanding of Guivera?

The letter becomes more of a biography as Guivera realizes he needs to tell his story, not necessarily for the initially intended and indecipherable audience, but for himself. “Button’s story and the strange destiny that united us pose a question that is still unanswered … the words that I set down on these sheets of paper without being forced to by anyone, have turned to me … staring at me, waiting for an answer I don’t have. For the one who writes it, a story is like a mirror.”

Although Iparraguirre leads the reader into a world richly evocative, figurative and filled with recognizable characters, such passages appear frequently, wrenching the reader from the narrative. It is as if one is absorbed in a stage production, and the house lights are flipped on revealing the offstage orchestrations. It is both jarring and thought provoking. To what purpose is the reader awakened intermittently from the spell? Iparraguirre challenges us to appraise the narrator’s role. Certainly Guivera contemplates his role in Button’s life and in the recounting of it.

In his letter, Guivera gazes into the mirror he’s creating with words and through memory, taking months to articulate his response. Guivera and Button develop a kinship allowing Guivera an unmatched perspective on Button. For the biracial Guivera, culture was a weighty, substantial entity. Being raised between two cultures, on the fringes of both and fully inside neither, Guivera empathized with Buttons, the “savage,” in ways the fully British could not. It was Guivera who intuited the demise of the experiment with Button while it was still nascent. It was Guivera who understood the Yamana culture, appreciating rather than judging it. Perhaps having stood outside the stream of culture, Guivera could see culture in ways those within simply cannot.

Perhaps Iparraguirre intended the same for the readers of Tierra del Fuego. If we are fully immersed in the narrative, are we able to see it clearly? Through Guivera’s recurring stops in the present, we are snatched out of the stream, forced to consider its dimensions, from whence it came and where we will go with it.

Mary Silwance teaches English at Bishop Miege High School in Shawnee Mission, Kan. Her e-mail address is silwance@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, May 4, 2001