Week 13: Handshake Protocol

by Maria Bustillos

Of all the freakouts in this section (and there are many) this handshake story freaked me out the worst. It’s a joke, this healing we’re told, drug read by Reiter, sildenafil recalled by Ansky as having been told to him by Ivanov, who heard it “at a party at the offices of a magazine where he worked at the time.” What the hell kind of a joke is this! It’s a game of Telephone, to start with. “Half truth, half legend.” Fine. But just try to find a punchline.

In this alleged joke, a group of French anthropologists visit an isolated tribe in Borneo. First they attempt to find out if these natives are cannibals (!?) Their “first guess” is that they might be. No, the natives say, they’re not cannibals. A gentle people, very primitive, with one weird feature: when they touch someone, they can’t look him in the face. They have therefore got a method of shaking hands that makes the most esoteric hip-hop greetings seem quite ordinary; they’re passing the arm under the armpit and whatnot, and not looking at one another. When a French anthropologist attempts to engage one of the natives in a Western-style handshake, by way of demonstration, however, they go completely nuts and smash the Frenchman’s skull open. (Still no punchline.)

Having made their escape with some difficulty, the remaining anthropologists figure there must be a clue to the natives’ sudden hostility in the word one of them shouted during the rumpus: “dayiyi”; you’ll be perhaps relieved to hear I can find no evidence of this terrible word outside the book. In the book, it means any of the following:

Cannibal

Impossibility

Man who rapes me

If you howl first, it can also mean:

Man who rapes me in the ass

Cannibal who fucks me in the ass and then eats my body

Man who touches me (or rapes me) and stares me in the eyes (to eat my soul)

The joke ends here, apparently, still with no punchline in sight. I told Oliver about this story and he said he thinks Bolaño “sounds like he has some very unhealthy preoccupations.” Which, well (insert weak laughter here.)

So … this basic fear on both sides of being eaten, or violated, or both—between this fear and the language barrier between the two tribes (the Frenchmen and the natives,) so much tension and terror are created that the result is bloodshed, ineluctable albeit almost inadvertent, just through misunderstanding and fear. The weirdest fear, of your soul being eaten. So much of this book is about the ineluctability of violence that I cannot help but suppose there is much more here than meets the eye.

In closing, I should like to draw your attention to another series of victims of a similar violation and cannibalism, viz., the many women in Santa Teresa who are raped, sodomized and whose breasts are bitten off. Is this violence a fear of the tribe of women–women with whom men cannot communicate, and who might eat their souls?

And again, is the mutual fear of having one’s soul eaten, of being too much known, at the heart of the violence in men’s hearts generally … and more specifically, Latin American violence. Perhaps we’re being told that the oil of Native America just won’t mix with European water, not ever?




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