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October 31, 2014
Saturday, July 26, 2014

Tales of two tongues: Mapuche and Quichua, pure poetry

By Andrew Graham-Yooll
For the Herald

Qepa Tata and Kallfv mapu constitute an “introduction to an intrinsic part of Argentina”

For most of us in this country the original peoples ceased to exist: they were wiped out, good riddance. That was the knowledge with which I was brought up and carried through school. We were a nation of white people. We are/were a nation of European exiles transposed to the River Plate. That’s what we were told. Then, on late-night radio one day a person read in a language whose tones and tunes I’d never heard. It was a sampling from an anthology of Mapuche poetry, selected by an established eccentric, author Néstor Barron, and prefaced by the well-known anarchist historian Osvaldo Bayer (Kallfv mapu/ Tierra Azul / Blue Earth, the title being a reference to the colour of Patagonia, of all southern Argentina, in a bilingual edition).

And the next sample reading was of words and poems from the people of the north of Argentina. Originally the poems had been written in Spanish, by journalist, biographer, playwright Rodolfo Braceli, who published his El último padre / The Last Father, in 1964. Now it is also titled, Qepa Tata, in a Spanish-Quichua bilingual edition, translated by historian and linguist, Aldo Leopoldo Tevez (both published by Continente).

You do suffer a little turn when reading in Blue Earth something like Psalm 1492 (the year of the arrival of Christopher Columbus at what would be called Santo Domingo, henceforth to be known as the ‘discovery of America’) , in the Barron/Bayer bilingual Mapuche anthology. Psalm 1492 reads, “We never were/ the chosen people / but they kill us / in the name of the Cross.” (And in Mapuche: Salmo, Waranka, Meli Pataka, Ailla Mari Epu — and that is just the title — “Turpu ngünel/ trokiñchenofel iñcbioñ/ welu langümngegeriñ /küruz ñi duam meu.”) Suppose that even if there is a typo there, nobody will notice until the resident Mapuche is consulted.

So why am I writing this? In a recent conversation in Buenos Aires with the president of International PEN, the World Association of Writers, Canadian author John Ralston Saul, he left an interesting poser, “For a language that has been politically marginalized, let’s say ‘attacked’, in an attempt to make it disappear for centuries, the endangering of that language is a freedom of expression question. So that’s why we have a Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee (in PEN). In the Americas, South, Central and North you have hundreds of indigenous languages. These are the languages of the Americas. Yet the roots that we have, you, speaking English and Spanish and me, speaking English and French, which are languages from elsewhere, sideline our origins. The languages of Latin America have become our languages, because they are the roots of who we are, no matter what we say. And if we don’t do something about it, we will see the disappearance of most of these languages. What could be a bigger seizure from somebody than the removal from existence of the language of a person. Language is education.”

After that conversation came the present linguistic adventure by late night radio. The quite well-known and entertaining Argentine writer Rodolfo Braceli sent a copy of his special little book, El último padre / The Last Father /Qepa Tata. The volume has a history before it was a book. Braceli, born in 1940, was unknown and not much more than a kid in his native Mendoza, when he read his poetry to audiences in the early sixties. From there on, his book, a gentle narrative of life and social behaviour, went on to be adapted for theatre, for musicals and poetry readings, dissected for academic theses and seminars, translated into English in the USA, Italian and, in part, into French and finally into Quichua.

The most recent translation, by Aldo Leopoldo Tevez, a native speaker, researcher and teacher of Quichua in Santiago del Estero, has prompted this new edition. The Last Father has been used in university courses in Sweden and Germany, as well as California, and on the Buenos Aires stage with the direction of such notables as Inda Ledesma, Rodolfo Bebán and Ulises Dumont. This success story is hard to define: it began as poetry, could be a series of short stories, and linked all these could even be a novel, or even a play. All this was transferred into one of Argentina’s main ancestral languages. A short sample passage reads: ‘I put wood/ in the house that is your womb, the wood is growing./ Undoubtedly/ I am God.’ (And in Quichua: Churarani kaspita/ wijsayki wasinpi/ cha kaspi wiñasqanpas./ Chayrayku noqa nini / Yaka kani.)

Both books provide a fascinating glance at a largely unknown Argentina, simply because the original people “had to be” destroyed in the context of a time of economic expansion (end of the nineteenth century, before that as well) to make way for the land barons and settler communities.

These are completely different languages, with few written origins, the text adapted from oral communication, ancestral tongues belonging to all those who lived here — and who have never thought of an original people’s tongue as being mine or, better still, something common to us all.

In his introduction to the book on the Patagonian Mapuches, Osvaldo Bayer opens with hard bat at “official culture” policies which have excluded the original languages from national learning. “This book helps us to begin to know who they are. It shows us a world different from our own. For them the stones, the colours, the streams, spring to life; the trees speak to us, the eyes of a live nature light the night; the birdsong is translated and changes from hour to hour, and that also happens with the words on the wind that cross the blue land of The South.”

This introduction to an intrinsic part of Argentina, ignored and denied until very recently, deserves to be explored, not only by academe, but also in poetry and stories, such as these.

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