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Darker Side of Mediation: Violence and Its Emotional Effects in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead – Marja-Liisa Helenius

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 5, 2009

Emotions Issue


© 2009 Marja-Liisa Helenius

 

Darker Side of Mediation:

Violence and Its Emotional Effects in

Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead

Marja-Liisa Helenius

University of Helsinki

 

Abstract

I will focus on the shift from the positive and harmonious tone in Pueblo Indian author Leslie Marmon Silko’s first novel, Ceremony, to the dark and dystopic vision of her second novel, Almanac of the Dead. There is a focus on violence in Silko’s novel Almanac of the Dead; depictions of violence as well as violent and pathologically unfeeling characters are abundant in the novel. The violence reflects a persistent strain in American history, from indigenous cultures to the violent world of post-contact, all the way to modern America. The wide range of characters in Silko’s novel exhibit the emotional responses to the violence, from extreme emotions to complete numbness.

In Almanac, Silko seeks to heal this “illness”, the emotionally void and violent world of contemporary America, through the means of mediation: the novel draws parallels between cultures, but in a deeply critical, satiric tone, revelling in violence, suggesting that change may not be possible without radical measures. In this manner Silko aims to heal the divisions by making her readers witness the horrors, experience them through emotional engagement, and thereby pass the story forward.

 

Laguna Pueblo author Leslie Marmon Silko’s second and massive novel, Almanac of the Dead, is an intricate design of a dystopian 21st century world full of corruption, desperate and perverse characters numbed by the violence surrounding them. This is a radical shift from Silko’s first novel, Ceremony, which can be considered as an example of positive mediational fiction, advocating healing as a possible result of understanding and dialogue between cultures. Mediation or cultural mediation is a term used by many Native American critics and theorists. My interpretation relies on James Ruppert’s theory in his work Mediation in Contemporary Native American Fiction. He examines the polyphonic dialogue in Silko’s Ceremony, and I relate this theory to Silko’s later novel, Almanac. Even though Ceremony attempts to reveal the “witchery” in American society by criticising the evils the Western world has imposed on indigenous peoples, the narrator, Pueblo Indian Tayo believes in all-encompassing healing. Almanac presents a darker vision, but I would argue that it is nevertheless a mediational novel, as it draws parallels between an impressive range of cultures to show that what we all share is our humanity. The novel does this in a deeply critical, satiric tone, revelling in violence, suggesting that change may not be possible without radical measures.

In this essay, I will focus on the shift from the positive and harmonious tone in Ceremony to the darker and more violent vision of Almanac by exploring some of the ways in which violence, its causes, and its emotional effects on the characters function within Almanac. Depictions of the gruesome effects of violence on the characters aim to provoke emotional reactions also in readers, the “witnesses” of Silko’s act of storytelling. In this manner, the novel fulfils the role that James Ruppert assigns to mediational texts: the purpose of these texts is not only to emphasise the “dialogic relationship between Native and non-Native discourse fields” (1995: Mediation x), but also to “change readers. The more complete the fusion between the implied reader and the real reader, the more complete the change” (Ruppert 1995: 13-14; Moore 1999: 162). I will show here how Silko’s novel applies this model by using violence and emotions related to it as a way to initiate change in the characters as well as the readers. Through her numerous characters, Silko shows that violence can cause both strong feelings as well as lack thereof; it can drive you to madness or to numbness.

The novel, set in a dystopic near future, presents all in all over 50 characters. There are various plotlines, and only in the end do we discover that the lives of many of the characters are interconnected in some ways. The main plotline is the story of two sets of twins, who prepare for the upcoming revolution of indigenous peoples in the Americas. The female twins, Yaqui Indians Lecha and Zeta, have endured many ordeals: Lecha possesses psychic abilities and she has travelled most of her life, making use of her psychic talent by working in police TV-shows, for instance. Zeta is more settled and rational, taking care of Lecha’s son, Ferro, and quietly assisting a group of rebellious Indians by smuggling arms. Lecha returns home to decipher the old almanacs that have been left to them by their grandmother Yoeme, containing necessary information and prophecies important for the future of mankind – prophesies of the apocalypse, followed by a “new world”.1 The male protagonists of the novel are also twins, Maya Indians El Feo and Tacho, who act as spiritual leaders of the indigenous peoples, preparing them for the rebellion against white domination. The other characters are either destroyers, ruthless and perverse characters who only care about their own benefit and destroy lives as well as the land, or victims – both Native and white – who scarcely dare to dream of a better future. Some characters are ambiguous, dangling in between and provoking conflicting emotions in readers.

Violence is indeed a dominant theme in Almanac. Silko sees the violence – as well as the illness of contemporary materialist and capitalist American society – as the result of 500 years of oppression and detachment from the tribal ways of life. The great illness in Almanac is detachment from the earth; since the arrival of the Europeans, white people have ignored and violated indigenous tribal traditions and the sanctity of the land. Grandmother Yoeme states: “It was white men coming to find more silver, to steal more Indian land. It was white men coming with their pieces of paper!” (Silko 1991: 116). One of Silko’s explanations for the violence is that the horrendous actions have had subconscious emotional effects on the Europeans, who, in their fear, have become even more violent. This is evident to Lecha, for due to her psychic abilities, many white people come to her for help, seeking remedy for their emotional emptiness:

Affluent, educated white people, upstanding Church members, sought out Lecha in secret. They all had come to her with a deep sense that something had been lost. […] [B]ut Lecha knew the loss was their connection with the earth. They all feared illness and physical change; since life led to death, consciousness terrified them, and they had sought to control death by becoming killers themselves. (Silko 1991: 718)

Silko therefore offers fear as a possible explanation for violence, suggesting that violence not only causes but is based on emotion. Furthermore, Almanac clearly suggests that violence is an innate tendency plaguing all of humankind; violence inhabited the American continent long before the arrival of the Europeans. The human tendency to violence gains support from many theorists; for example, Hannah Arendt, in her acknowledged reflections on violence and power, seems to agree that the human tendency to violence is something innate, “taken for granted and therefore neglected; no one questions or examines what is obvious to all” (Arendt 1969: 2).

The map at the beginning of Almanac shows how violence spans in the Americas from the time of the Maya, Aztec and Inca cultures, who prophesied the arrival and disappearance of Europeans. Throughout Almanac, Silko’s characters argue repeatedly that the Europeans are not the only bloodthirsty sacrificers; the indigenous tribes in the Americas made brutal human sacrifices and revelled in blood: “Human sacrificers were part of the worldwide network of Destroyers who fed off energy released by destruction” (Silko 1991: 336). Destroyers – Gunadeeyahs – are to be found everywhere, in all races, cultures, religions and nations (e.g. Silko 1991: 759). Indeed, not all of Silko’s white characters are evil; many of them are victims of their own society, as we shall see below.

Silko states in an interview: “The cancer [the illness of the society] is the secret Gunadeeyah clan which has members all over the world; their worship of suffering and destruction is the cancer which afflicts all cultures to some degree.” (Arnold 2000:130). Furthermore, Silko draws connections between the destroyers not only through space but through time, from ancient sorcerers to modern-day gory entertainment:

The people had always feared the Destroyers, humans who were attracted to and excited by death and the sight of blood and suffering […] Tacho had watched enough television and movies to realize those who secretly loved destruction and death ranged all over the earth” (Silko 1991: 475).

Thus, Silko suggests that violence, which is both based on fear and creating fear, reflects a persistent strain in American history, from indigenous cultures to the violent world of post-contact, all the way to modern America.

Significantly, the effects of violence and the bloody history in Almanac are expressed through the emotional responses – or lack thereof – of Silko’s various characters. The characters shift between feeling and not feeling, between despair and numbness or rage and indifference. These contradictory states are the dominant emotional states that the violence results in/from. Silko-scholar Janet St. Clair argues that in the “utterly amoral and atomized society” of Almanac, the characters are not only incapable of love, but seem “incapable even of hatred” (St. Clair 1996: 1). Even though this would seem to be true to some extent, Silko also depicts human emotions as something so innate that they are extremely difficult to abolish. In my view, hope for a better future in the novel springs from the human need and tendency to feel, which cannot be completely abolished even in the direst of circumstances. Silko seems to believe – or hope – that this will eventually awaken the sense of justice in all of us and engender a social revolution; the readers of the novel are witnesses to these horrible events and interpreters of the characters’ emotions, and in the process become aware of the “witchery” around and within all of us. The shock that the readers experience arises from recognising not only the victim but also the destroyer within themselves. As we shall see, the novel serves as a warning and message to tell humankind that hope is not lost, but action must be taken. It is only this change within the witnesses that will lead to the revolution that the novel prophesies.

Many of the characters in the novel fall into the category of either victim or destroyer, but neither one of these remain unaffected by the violence; the victims fall into despair or become empty shells drained of all emotion, while many of the destroyers are or become pathologically unfeeling. Almanac exhibits an extraordinary number of destroyers, who are cruel and exceptionally perverse. Beaufrey, of wealthy, European aristocratic origin, exhibits extreme egotism and derives pleasure from people’s suffering in the cruellest and most perverse scenarios. His lover and accomplice, Serlo, is a blue-blooded aristocrat of noble lineage, who shows chilling nonchalance for fellow humans (541). Mafioso Max Blue has lost an emotional connection to the world due to several close-to-death experiences, and can only feel pleasure when planning a detailed assassination (e.g. Silko 1991: 353). In addition to these characters, discussed in further detail below, there are many other destroyers in Almanac, such as fearless Leah Blue with her destructive plans to use up all the water in Arizona, crippled Trigg, who is obsessed with his body and has no problem exploiting those of others in the human organ business, and dim-witted capitalist Menardo, whose presumptuous business provides insurances against “violent uprising or revolution” (Silko 1991: 292). All of them exhibit and react to violence in society. Beaufrey and Serlo orchestrate the disappearance of Monte, the child of Beaufrey’s younger lover David and drug-addict and former exotic dancer Seese. David, Seese, and their friend and David’s lover Eric are pawns in Beaufrey’s game, which finally destroys them both mentally and physically: Eric commits suicide and Seese and David exhibit self-destructive behaviour, and especially Seese blames herself for Monte’s disappearance. They are the victims in the world of destroyers. 

The character of Beaufrey is one of the least sympathetic destroyers in the novel – an egotistic and perverse individual incapable of empathy, whose only source of interest is the thrill he receives from blood and violence: “Even as a child, Beaufrey had realized he was different from other children. He had always loved himself, only himself.” (Silko 1991: 533). The suffering of others does not concern him because other people are not real to him:

Others did not fully exist – they were only ideas that flitted across his consciousness then disappeared. […] That is why the most bloody spectacles of torture did not upset him; because he could not be seriously touched by the contortions and screams of imperfectly drawn cartoon victims. (Silko 1991: 533)

Beaufrey is intrigued by crime and famous criminals, the more brutal the better. He does not feel love or empathy, but he feels curiosity towards other human beings, and draws pleasure from cruelty. He enjoys the psychological torture of others, and manipulating his “victims”, such as his lover David, a young artist: “Artists were the most fascinating to Beaufrey because they were often shattered and easily manipulated emotionally. Artists were quite exciting to destroy. Because they participated so freely.” (Silko 1991: 537). He sees the suffering of others as a theater performance for his amusement (537). When David’s lover Eric commits suicide, Beaufrey merely muses: “[U]ncanny how Eric’s blood and flesh had become a medium consumed by a single performance” (1991: 537). Beaufrey cannot feel empathy for Eric’s suffering, but it makes him think of how fragile and fleeting human life is. He considers himself a superior figure, above common human problems, and therefore he finds this theatre “fascinating” (1991: 537).

Beaufrey also enjoys watching physical torture, especially videos of dissections, abortions, sex-change operations, circumcisions and other bloody operations that he acquires for customers (Silko 1991: 102). Beaufrey is the quintessential destroyer, one who derives his perverse pleasure only from blood and violence. He cannot love; he loathed his mother, who had not even wanted him, and his lovers are a way to pass time and amuse himself. But even Beaufrey cannot avoid human urges; he wants to feel. He even orchestrates the abduction of David’s child in order to observe his pain and drive him to suicide: “Beaufrey enjoyed watching David’s dumb pain over the disappearance of the child. Fathers who gushed over sons made Beaufrey want to smash in their faces” (Silko 1991: 536). Thus, Beaufrey’s emotions are utterly perverse and violent, though still human. Indeed, he believes that all humans secretly crave blood and most only pretend not to enjoy it: “Beaufrey divided the world into those who admitted the truth and those who lied” (Silko 1991: 538). He believes that all people are fundamentally destroyers at heart, and cannot grasp that others might be less egoistic and therefore more capable of feeling genuine empathy and affection for others. The possibility of becoming like the destroyers is the chilling warning in Silko’s story; even the likes of Beaufrey are, after all, only human.

Aristocrat Serlo is Beaufrey’s partner and lover (541). His egotism reaches extremes: he does not even like to be touched by other human beings, those of inferior blood, nor does he derive pleasure from their actions:

He [Serlo] had preferred indifference to Beaufrey’s weird fixations. Serlo was not curious about the fate of insignificant beings; he had not felt the thrill Beaufrey felt watching Eric, David and Seese waltz one another closer to suicide. (Silko 1991: 550)

Serlo does not even possess the curiosity that Beaufrey has for human beings, he feels neither excited nor amused to follow the “theater” (1991: 537) that Beaufrey’s lover David and other “insignificant beings” engage in. Serlo remains utterly unaffected by human emotions: “Only he, of all the others, had the rare gift of perfect calm” (1991: 541). David describes Serlo as “pale, aristocratic, and passionless” (1991: 554). Serlo is concerned with aristocratic purity, sangre pura (“pure blood”), and in his fear of dirt and disease he avoids any contact with other human beings, and he especially loathes women. With his phobias and eugenic goals to save the “pure-blooded”, Serlo takes racial bigotry to its extreme (1991: 541-542). As St. Clair (1999: 212) states, Serlo’s behaviour “caricature[s] Euro-America’s conviction of its own genetic and cultural superiority and its corresponding fear of the corruptions of miscegeny” and his emotional detachment and misogyny emphasise the “loveless phallocentrism” in American society. Whereas Beaufrey’s feelings are utterly perverted, Serlo is pathologically unfeeling; Beaufrey, at the very least, loves himself (1991:533), but Serlo loves or cares for nothing.

Yet another destroyer, Max Blue, a Mafioso numbed by violence, is an example of the results of concrete violent action and its effects. His role as a destroyer is ambiguous, for it is possible for the reader to feel some sympathy for his character, due to his ordeals and the fact that in a way he is a victim himself. He survives a plane crash and a shooting, but these events make him feel detached from his life, unable to feel affection for his family. He feels empty, severed from his old life:

Max had lost all sense of connection with the world the instant the .38 slugs hit his chest. Max had told Leah exactly how he felt; emotional bonds between everyone and himself had been severed. (Silko 1991: 353)

He “feels nothing anymore for ‘family’– not even his own sons” (638). The only pleasure in his life comes from detailed planning, which is why all he likes to do is plan out elaborate assassinations and play golf. Max feels detached from life both emotionally and physically; he cannot even feel sexual arousal anymore, not for his wife Leah nor for anyone else:

Max could remember the daydreams and fantasies, but nothing about them excited him anymore. The bullets had torn Max loose from his own body. Now Max got pleasure only from precision planning, from perfect timing and execution. (Silko 1991: 378

Being so close to death has detached Max from the world, but he is still human, and he wants to feel again: “When Max looks at Leah, he tries to recall memories with feelings for Leah but there is nothing” (Silko 1991: 638). Max is a destroyer, but in some ways he is also a victim; his emotional numbness is the result of the violent society surrounding him.

Not all the white people in Almanac are destroyers: some of them are victims whose lives are destroyed by violence. One of the victims is drug-addict Seese, a desperate white woman who has lost her baby, Monte. Silko states in an interview that “Seese is white and she is not evil, she is powerless and self-destructive” (Arnold 2000: 130). Indeed, drug use is – ironically – both the escape from and the cause of her problems. Drugs provide the only relief for her, making her feel calm and numbing the pain (Silko 1991: 44). Seese is a classic victim – a weak individual unable to cope with the pressures of a corrupt and violent society, and therefore she falls prey to the destroyers. Even though Seese blames herself for her child’s disappearance, she is a victim of manipulation and the evil deeds of destroyers that are out of her control. Unlike the destroyers, Seese does not want to feel; she seeks numbness, a relief from her pain, but it is not easy to suppress her feelings: “When she tried to cry, she felt no relief, only greater pain from her anguish” (111). She tries to numb her fear and pain with more violence: drugs, abusive sex and other self-destructive behaviour. Violence is often associated with depictions of Seese’s emotions over her loss:

Seese had been numb since Monte disappeared. Seese is still numb ten nights later as the lawyer punches his cock into her. She would have killed herself the first night, but she does not want to die until she knows for certain Monte is dead. (Silko 1991: 111).

Sex is described as an act of violence (“punches his cock into her”), and it leaves Seese numb and indifferent. Seese is one of the victims who react to violence with violence, though it is directed towards herself. She allows herself to be abused by others in order to punish herself for losing her son.

When Seese’s friend and confidant Eric kills himself, she cannot process the pain but resorts to a common psychological defence mechanism, denial: “She wasn’t feeling anything. She wasn’t feeling that Eric was dead. She was feeling that he had gone back to Lubbock to visit his mother” (Silko 1991: 104). Seese felt that “[n]one of it could be real. This had to be a drug hallucination or a long dream” (105). She wonders if the reason she cannot feel anything after Eric’s death is because she has been so numbed by violence, or because violence, in modern society, is turned into entertainment, “clinically detached” from reality:

David had photographed Eric’s corpse Police Gazette style. The black-and-white prints David had made were all high contrast: the blood thick, black tar pooled and spattered across the bright white of the chenille bedspread. Was that why she didn’t feel anything, or after she’d realized David had photographed Eric’s body? […] Or did she feel no horror because she had already been filled with it, and no photographs of brains, bone, and blood would ever add up to Eric? (Silko 1991: 107)

The scene of Eric’s death is dramatised and made to seem unreal, like a movie scene, suggesting that people enjoy seeing blood and horror. Seese’s indifference also sends an alarming message: in a world imbued with violence, it becomes difficult to feel. An appropriate ending to Seese’s tragic story is a staged shoot-out between the police and her old boss Tiny that she happens to witness. The violent scenes are depicted thoroughly, and Seese, with unintentional irony, compares them to TV entertainment:

Seese remembered a horror movie she had once seen in which blood had flowed out elevator doors in waves and had flooded a hotel lobby. The police had forced Seese to sit in the chair with her feet in the pool of Tiny’s blood. (Silko 1991: 696)

For Beaufrey, other people’s lives are a theater spectacle because he is incapable of feeling empathy for their suffering, whereas Seese is caught in the middle of the “movie” and cannot even feel horror anymore – nothing but numbness.

Later in the novel, Seese finally realizes the truth: Monte is dead. Again, she tries to numb her pain with cocaine: “The pain in her chest took her breath away and she hoped she would die. All her life she had done everything wrong – she had ruined or lost any love she had ever had” (Silko 1991: 595). At this stage, readers learn that Beaufrey is behind baby Monte’s disappearance, which adds to the element of shock and makes Seese’s story even more sympathetic, as it is now clear that she is not to blame for her son’s death. The depictions of Seese’s pain are therefore likely to provoke an emotional response from the witnesses, the readers of the novel.

One of the more contradictory characters is Alegría, also a young white woman, a talented architect who has been spoiled by an easy life. She is neither a victim nor a destroyer, but rather a product of the violent and corrupted society. She is married to the greedy insurance salesman Menardo, not out of love but for security. She is used to the good life, as she comes from a fine family of diplomats (Silko 1991: 487). In the words of her former lover, the Cuban Marxist Bartolomeo, she belongs to “bourgeois Tuxtla”; she is one of “the phony rich bitches who sat on their bony butts” (Silko 1991: 514). Alegría wants financial security, but it is not enough. She married Menardo because he would give her everything and anything she wanted, at least in the material sense. However, even the beautiful house and gardens she has designed herself do not mean much to her: “she felt indifferent about them the way she had felt indifferent about her apartment in Mexico City” (Silko 1991: 487). Despite her sophistication and secure life, Alegría recognizes the emptiness and indifference inside of her, and, similar to Silko’s destroyers, she wants to feel:

Sometimes her indifference frightened her, and she willed herself to feel something, even hatred. She had been attracted to Bartolomeo and other leftists because she could feel the hatred they had. She was fascinated by the intensity of their hatred; otherwise politics bored her. (Silko 1991: 487)

Indeed, she ends up feeling hatred for Bartolomeo, and its intensity surprises her: “Alegría could feel her heart pounding. She had never felt hatred so purely before. If she had had a gun close by, she would have killed him on the spot” (Silko 1991: 505). The previously indifferent aristocrat has found her inner destroyer, the one drawn to blood and violence. Silko depicts Alegría’s emotions in detail, showing the pleasure that she derives from “pure” human emotions:

Alegría had not felt hatred so violently, with such purity, before. […] Alegría wanted to kill him slowly, to feel him dying under her hands, his flesh quivering and clammy; she would breathe deeply, breathe exultantly, the stench of his blood and shit, the sweet aroma of his terror. That was how liars such as Bartolomeo died. (Silko 1991: 510)

Alegría lets her emotions, particularly rage, take control. As political theorist Hannah Arendt states, rage is an emotion that often arises from the experience of injustice (Arendt 1969: 14), and indeed an act of injustice committed by Bartolomeo is what awakens violent emotions in Alegría. Like many of the other characters, she responds to violence with violence. However, what distinguishes her from the destroyers depicted above is that she does not act on her violent impulses. She is, therefore, neither a victim nor a destroyer, but rather the product of a society imbued with violence and corruption; an indifferent egoist whose emotions stir only in extreme circumstances.

The father of twin sisters Lecha and Zeta exemplifies the spiritual emptiness of the Euro-Americans in the novel. The twins’ father is a white German immigrant who gives up on life; Lecha and Zeta both remember their father losing interest in his life and work, figuratively and literally drying up:

Yoeme [grandmother of the twins] said the veins of silver had dried up because their father, the mining engineer himself, had dried up. Years of dry winds and effects of the sunlight on milky-white skin had been devastating. Suddenly the man had dried up inside, and although he still walked and talked and reasoned like a man, inside he was crackled, full of dry molts of insects. (Silko 1991: 120)

Their father had become detached from reality and growingly indifferent, but he did not know why. He announced one day: “I am going to die. My life has never interested me much. I think about myself and this room. The longer I think the less I understand.” (Silko 1991: 123). Yoeme is not concerned with the twins’ father, for she sees that white people have brought their problems onto themselves: “The white man had violated the Mother Earth, and he had been stricken with the sensation of gaping emptiness between his throat and his heart” (121). The effects of the hundreds of years of violence and desecrating the earth have left the people emotionally empty and indifferent. The emptiness inside Lecha’s and Zeta’s father symbolises the spiritual emptiness of white men, the inability to feel resulting from all the destruction, emphasising Silko’s message of the white Europeans as intruders on the continent. They had no history in the Americas, no traditions of their own, and they neglected the traditions of the natives, as well as their own: “Europeans did not listen to the souls of their dead. That was the root of all trouble for Europeans” (604). Non-indigenous readers may feel the guilt that Silko pins on Euro-Americans in many similar passages.

Twin sisters Lecha and Zeta are the heroes in the novel,2 but in many ways they are also victims of abuse and of discrimination by society. They lose their Maya Indian mother quite young, and their grandmother Yoeme is the one who teaches them about their crucial role as the keepers of the old almanacs, and their importance in the upcoming revolution of the indigenous peoples. The importance of their role is emphasised by the difficulties they encounter, and the sad destiny of their father has a significant effect on them:

Zeta could feel an empty space inside her rib cage, an absence that had been growing even before their mother died. She felt a peculiar sadness when she remembered their father, the detached white man who smiled and spoke and who was a dead man already. (Silko 1991: 121)

The emptiness that Zeta feels leaves her searching for a meaning, and perhaps contributes to her will to fight in her later years. Emotional attachment is difficult for both sisters; neither of them has ever truly loved a man. Especially Lecha has had difficulties coming to terms with her psychic gift, an ability to find the dead (1991: 139). She takes drugs for her headaches caused by the visions, but when the significance of her mission – decoding the old almanacs for future generations – becomes clear to her, she starts gaining mental strength: “Lecha could read the old notebooks and scraps of newspaper clippings for hours and forget all about the pain” (Silko 1991: 569). One of the most hopeful moments in the novel is Lecha’s moment of strength and positive energy: “Lecha said she was full of ideas; the news of the spirit macaws had inspired her. It had been years since she had felt so many thoughts swarming” (592). In Silko’s view, the twins are reacting to violence: “Lecha becomes aware of the necessity of transcribing the notebooks after she sees the effects of the savage violence running loose in the United States” (Arnold 2000: 128). For the twin sisters, the only way out of the emotional emptiness and numbness caused by all the violence is action. They are messengers of hope, but also believers in violent revolution and radicalism:

[T]he twin brothers might sincerely believe their recovery of the Americas could take place without bloodshed, but Lecha had her doubts especially since the hideous slaughter that had occurred in South Africa. These American continents were already soaked with Native American and African blood; violence begat violence, but if the destroyers were not stopped, the human race was finished. (Silko 1991: 739)

The twin brothers believe in a peaceful revolution, but the sisters believe that change may require radical measures, because the emotions raised by violence usually stir violent reactions. The sisters believe that action is the only way to a less violent world. The hero figures in the novel – both sets of twins – therefore gain emotional strength and meaning in their lives through action, working towards a better world that will follow the revolution.

Finally, the character of Sterling – a Pueblo Indian whose story resembles that of the protagonist Tayo in Ceremony to great extent3 – can be seen as the most sympathetic character in Almanac, for he remains impartial, and most of the readers can identify with him. He is one of the only characters who is not numbed by the violence, nor does he partake in it. Nevertheless, he is fascinated by the violent history of Tucson, along with the whole of the Americas, and he gathers information about famous criminals:

He was curious about the town itself because Tucson had a notorious history. Besides Tom Mix, other famous people had met their downfall in Tucson. Geronimo and John Dillinger to name two. […] Sterling would like very much just to stand on the sites of these historical events. (Silko 1991: 39).

Sterling is not prone to or aroused by violence himself, and therefore he is neither a victim nor a destroyer, but rather an observer, a witness; he is in the same position as the reader, for he sees all the events at close range, working as a gardener for the twin heroines Lecha and Zeta. When Sterling returns to his home, Laguna Pueblo, after witnessing all the violence at the beginning of the uprising in Tucson, initiated by the twin brothers, his instinct is to deny everything as though it “had only been a bad dream” (762). However, he cannot ignore the message that he has received, and he knows that changes must and will take place. Sterling’s reactions and emotions are those that Silko might expect of her readers; becoming aware of the violence is what will lead to healing.

This act of witnessing is a significant theme running through Silko’s work; in Ceremony, Silko retells the witchery story that is a part of Pueblo oral tradition, stating that the witches’ magic does not work if “someone is watching” (Silko 1977: 247). David L. Moore, in his article on Almanac, claims that the witnesses – whether followers of a ritual or readers of a book – experience the story in order to tell it forward:

Because the witness is blood-deep in the events, implicated by silent presence at the destruction, the energy of that destruction becomes diffused, deflecting off the victim and onto the witness as teller or reteller of the tale, like a keeper of the almanac. (Moore 1999: 163)

Many critics agree that Almanac is a mediational novel. Moore states that Almanac is indeed an expanded version of Ceremony, and due to its global scope, “the healing process must be repeated over and over with more intensity” (Moore 1999: 149). Janet St. Clair agrees that Almanac is not without hope; she sees communality resurging when Western individualism fails (St. Clair 1996: 8). Silko states in an interview that Almanac reminds its readers about community: “all people have to constantly be working, otherwise we will manage to destroy ourselves” (Arnold 2000: 35). The novel, Silko’s vivid horror show, can indeed be seen as a cautionary tale, and it is aimed at making readers “witness” and acknowledge the witchery around them, and to aspire for a better world: “a day was coming when each human being, man, woman, and child, could do something, and each contribution no matter how small would generate great momentum because they would be acting together.” (Silko 1991: 747). As I have shown above, one method through which Silko achieves reader engagement is the elaborate depiction of characters’ emotions.

Even though most of the characters are full of hatred and bigotry, some are mediational figures, such as the Barefoot Hopi, who wants all prisoners everywhere to go free and unite in a revolution to save the Earth. He has his own religion, which does not discriminate: “The Hopi claimed his religion included everyone; everyone was born belonging to the earth” (Silko 1991: 625). Even though the Hopi thinks that change will not happen without revolution, he believes that all people are equal and peace and balance will be retrieved (626). The twin heroes Tacho and El Feo also advocate a peaceful revolution, planning a people’s march to the North – marching peacefully, “unarmed and unguarded” (735). The rebellion led by the twin brothers brings together all cultures and peoples:

The people came from all directions, and many claimed they had been summoned in dreams. Wacah [spirit name for Tacho] had proclaimed all human beings were welcomed to live in harmony together. People from tribes farther south, peasants without land, mestizos, the homeless from the cities and even a busload of Europeans, had come to hear the spirit macaws speak through Wacah. (Silko 1991: 709)

The twin brothers bring all people together in the end. Although the twin sisters are prepared for a violent uprising, Silko indicates that a peaceful revolution is desirable. This is the main point of her mediational message: she makes her readers witness and feel the cruelties, because they concern everyone. Everything that unites human beings, all “born belonging to the earth” (625), is what makes a fight for the future possible and worthwhile.

As noted earlier, according to Ruppert mediational texts aim to change readers. As I have shown above, Silko aims to change the readers’ perspective by appealing to their emotions. Depicting the emotional effects of violence on the characters also causes an emotional response in the readers, the witnesses, who must only open their eyes to see that the possibility of the world depicted in Almanac is not far in the future; the possibility of becoming either a victim or a destroyer “trails each one of us” (Silko 1991: 253). In my view, Almanac seeks to arouse horror and disgust towards the cruel and extremely egoistic destroyers such as Beaufrey and Serlo, as well as empathy for the suffering of the victims, such as Seese and Eric, and also rage for the injustice and horror that the destroyers cause. The reader may identify especially with the more objective characters, such as Sterling, who neither participates in nor tries to end the violence, and Alegría, who is indifferent and selfish and yet eventually aroused by anger and rage. Rage, especially, is a strong feeling that drives people to look for action and change, and Silko indeed goes to the extreme with her dark worldview in order to stir rage inside of every reader. Silko states in an interview by Ellen Arnold that human beings only need to realize that a change is necessary, and already happening:

Every day people wake up to the inhumanity and violence this government perpetrates on its own citizens, and on citizens all over the world. That’s why the change will not be stopped, for it will be a change of consciousness, a change of heart. (Arnold 2000: 144)

Through all the violence and the extreme human emotions, Silko’s dark and brutal novel thus carries a mediational message, performing the function of the guardians of the old almanacs, which is to tell the stories and thereby to bring about “a change of consciousness” (Arnold 2000: 144) in everyone willing to hear, see – and feel – the stories.

 

Notes

1 The prophecy of the end of the word, usually through fire, earthquakes and other natural disasters, is a common belief in many Native American cultures. The Maya, for example, believe that the present world will be annihilated in 2012, and that afterwards a better era will begin (Coe 2005: 213-214).

2 They are the “chosen ones”, equivalent to the Hero Twins that appear in old myths in Mayan, Pueblo, African-American and other cultures worldwide (e.g. Michael D. Coe, The Maya 65).

3 Whereas Tayo feels himself a stranger when he returns to his home Laguna Pueblo after several years, Sterling has been banished by the tribal council because he let a Hollywood movie crew have access to the sacred stone formation. In the end, they both return home and regain their place as members of the community.

References

Arendt, Hannah (1969) “Reflections on Violence.” New York Review of Books, 27 February, 1969. Available at: <www.cooperativeindividualism.org/arendt-hanna_reflections-on-violence.html>  (Accessed on 5 November 2009.)

Arnold, Ellen L., ed. (2000) Conversations with Leslie Marmon Silko. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi.

 Barnett, Louise K. and Thorson, James L., eds. (1999) Leslie Marmon Silko: A Collection of Critical Essays. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

 Coe, Michael D. (2005 [1966]) The Maya. New York: Thames & Hudson.

 Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth (1996) “The American Indian Fiction Writers. Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism, the Third World, and First Nation Sovereignty.” In Why I Can’t Read Wallace Stegner and Other Essays. London: The University of Wisconsin Press.

 Moore, David L. (1999) “Silko’s Blood Sacrifice: The Circulating Witness in Almanac of the Dead.” In Barnett, Louise K. and Thorson, James L., eds. Leslie Marmon Silko: A Collection of Critical Essays. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 149-183.

 Ruppert, James  (1995) Mediation in Contemporary Native American Fiction. Norman, London: University of Oklahoma Press.

 Silko, Leslie Marmon (1977) Ceremony. New York: The Viking Press, 1977.

 _____. (1991) Almanac of the Dead. New York: Penguin Books.

 _____. (1994) “Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective”. In Hirschberg, Stuart (ed.). The Many Worlds of Literature. New York: Macmillan, 1005-1015.

 _____. (1997) Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today. New York: Touchstone.

 Sol, Adam (1999) “The Story as it’s told: Prodigious Revisions in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead.” American Indian Quarterly 23: 3/4. p.24-49.

 St. Clair, Janet (1996) “Death of Love/ Love of Death: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead”. MELUS 21: 2. p.141-157.

 _____. (1999) “Cannibal Queers: The Problematics of Metaphor in Almanac of the Dead.” In Barnett, Louise K. and Thorson, James L., eds. Leslie Marmon Silko: A Collection of Critical Essays. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 207-221.

 Schorcht, Blanca (1999) Storied Voices in Native American Texts: Harry Robinson, Thomas King, James Welch and Leslie Marmon Silko. Vancouver: The University of British Columbia. Unpublished manuscript.