In 1968, the Buenos Aires-born writer and journalist Sara Gallardo travelled to the small town of Embarcación in Salta, a province in the north-west of Argentina. There she met and interviewed Lisandro Vega, also known by his indigenous name Eisejuaz. Lisandro Vega was a notable representative of the Wichí community living in the Evangelical Mission La Loma founded by Scandinavian Protestants. The immediate result of this encounter was an anthropological article published in the newspaper Confirmado under the title The Story of Lisandro Vega. Three years later, the novel Eisejuaz came out, with the fictionalised version of Lisandro Vega as its protagonist and first-person narrator. The Eisejuaz imagined by Sara Gallardo has proved to be one of the most original and profound characters in Latin American literature. It has taken a while for the readers and critics to catch up with the significance of the novel, which is now regarded in Argentina as a literary classic, and its recent reissue by the independent Spanish publisher Malas Tierras will hopefully get it more readers and admirers in Europe.
For the duration of the novel, we inhabit the subjectivity of Eisejuaz, who, by integrating the religious dogmas taught to him at the Mission with his indigenous beliefs, has become a kind of Christian shaman. He talks to the Lord through angels or messengers that come to him from the natural world. Animals, trees, and even the air speak to him occasionally to impart divine revelations. Only once does God himself talk to him directly. It happens when Lisandro is 16 years old and works as a dishwasher at a hotel. The Lord manifests himself in the little whirlpool of soapy water going down the drain in a kitchen sink and brings the young Eisejuaz the message which will determine the course of his life: “Lisandro, Eisejuaz, your hands are mine, give them to me.” As it becomes apparent after a series of communications through the messengers, the main character’s predestination is to take care of one special person sent into his path by God, and this period of caretaking will prove the last important event in his life. At the age of thirty-five, Eisejuaz stumbles upon the helpless body of a white man lying in the mud. The man, whose name is Paqui, has been paralised due to an unspecified reason. The Wichí protagonist believes that Paqui is the chosen one to whom he has to give his hands at God’s behest and brings the man to his home. He will be feeding, washing, and looking after Paqui in all possible ways for three years, which will result in his complete alienation from the local indigenous community and the clergy at the mission. Although rousing sympathy because of his lamentable state, Paqui is hardly likeable. Before the accident, his main occupation was getting the indigenous women working at a sugar factory drunk and shearing their hair, which he later sold to barber shops. Paqui is far from grateful to Eisejuaz for his selfless care: every day he hurls abuse and mockery at his “saviour” and even manages to seduce his mistress Mauricia. Stoically, Lisandro Vega bears Paqui’s taunts and insults despite the occasional impulse to crush his head (the protagonist is extremely strong) because he has no choice but to fulfil the mission entrusted to him by God. In Eisejuaz’s figurative language, the benevolence of God is symbolised by the hammocks hung in his heart by the Angels, so they can stay in it with due comfort. These metaphysical hammocks find their earthly reflection in the hammock used by Lisandro to carry Paqui every day on his back: the benevolence and the burden become inseparable.
Just like Eisejuaz has to make a bigger picture of God’s will out of the messages communicated by a host of his angels such as the lizard, the rococo toad, the jaguar, the rhea, the brocket, the Chaco chachalaca, and others, so the reader has to piece together a coherent story out of the disjointed and impressionistic narrative coached in a highly idiosyncratic Spanish, which is the second language of the protagonist. The abrupt flashbacks and lack of conventional signposting make the novel confusing to the first-time reader, and the fact that some key information is revealed in casual and misleadingly forgettable statements makes Sara Gallardo’s work even more challenging, and, at the same time, more exciting to anyone who wants to get to the crux of the matter. We also have to remember that the mind of the narrator telling us this non-linear and rambling story is occasionally subject to the influence of mind-altering substances, which Eisejuaz consumes to facilitate his communication with the messengers. In most cases, the spiritual contact is established by smoking a mixture of tobacco and the crushed seeds of the Cebil tree or Anadenanthera Colubrina, which contain the psychoactive alkaloid bufotenin. For example, it is thanks to the smoking ritual administered for him by his older friend Vicente Aparicio that Eisejuaz coaxes the angels back into his heart with their hammocks after a long and painful period of their absence. However, smoking the hallucinogenic seeds is not the only way for Lisandro Vega to pursue his shamanistic practices. We find this out when he drinks unadulterated alcohol in order to heal a little girl whose father believes that her sudden illness is the result of Eisejuaz’s curse.
Wherever we follow the protagonist, we encounter violence in different forms and shapes. It has been part of Eisejuaz’s world since early childhood. In a disturbingly bland manner, he recounts the nasty, teeth-shattering fight between his mother and another woman from their tribe as well as the brutal battering of his wife, which leads to her death. Most of the time, the omnipresent violence is portrayed in a low-key manner, but there is at least one episode in which little is spared to the reader. Lisandro Vega is not the narrator, but the listener this time. He sits through a horrible story of a Wichí woman he will later identify as the personification of Vengeful Death, which is a mere defensive reaction on his part, for he witnessed some of the recounted events as a child, but chose to forget them. The main shock comes not only from the casual way in which the woman tells the hair-raising story of the murder and mutilation inflicted by the members of hostile tribes to one another, but also from the fact that the reader is totally unprepared for this sudden intrusion of graphic gore. When I reached this watershed moment in the book (and it is placed roughly in the middle) I was weirdly reminded of Gaspar Noé’s movie I Stand Alone, in which the provocative director inserted a warning with a countdown before a particularly bloody scene: “ATTENTION: you have 30 seconds to leave the screening of this film”. My immediate thought was that Sara Gallardo should have included a similar warning in the book.
In a parodic imitation of a hermit saint’s hagiography, Eisejuaz withstands what he calls the five temptations, (i. e. the five attempts by people he knows to persuade him to return to normal life) and, after a prophetic dream, withdraws into the wilderness of the primeval forest dragging along a cart with some clothes, tools, kitchen utensils and a helpless Paqui. There they live for some time in the idyll of secluded communion with nature and God, in the company of a monkey, a talking parrot and a dog. At least that is how Lisandro views his return to the familiar environment of his childhood dictated by the will of the higher powers. For Paqui, who is forced to eat snakes and endure the harshness of life in the selva, their escape from society is more like abduction, which is why as soon as their camp is discovered by a group of hunters he gets them to carry him back to town. Yet there seems to be no escape for either of them as they are destined to be reunited several years later, so the divine providence is fulfilled. After a stint as a charlatan healer gathering ecstatic crowds in the towns and villages of Salta, Paqui, like the prodigal son, will return to his benefactor to stay with him until the end.
The most obvious question that is likely to occupy the thoughts of the reader when the book is finished is “who is Paqui?” Does this character serve as a heavy-handed symbol of the burden of white colonialism weighing on the shoulders of the aboriginal man? Is he Eisejuaz’s sinister double, a materialised aspect of his personality? Or maybe he is just a foil to his companion’s idealistic nature: yet another version of Sancho Panza or Lamme Goedzak? I have to admit that I haven’t been able to come up with a satisfactory answer. I don’t know the real significance of this thoroughly immoral yet oddly sympathetic character. I am more inclined to view him as just a victim of the circumstances, an unwilling cypher that acquires a meaning only after Eisejuaz inscribes in him, as it were, the message drawn from the syncretic semiotics of his Christian shamanism. And the fact that Paqui ultimately finds his way back to his caretaker, seemingly on his free will, as though reconciled with his place within the cosmos of the indigenous man, is the best proof of the power contained in that message even if we are unlikely to comprehend its true meaning.
Update: It turns out there is a German translation of the book, done by Peter Kultzen. So, if you can read German, there is nothing preventing you from spending some time in the splendid and terrifying world of Eisejuaz.