Almanac of the Dead is a sprawling, nontraditional novel set amid geopolitical changes and apocalyptic visions of the future. While Native American author Leslie Marmon Silko was writing it, she told an interviewer that it was a “long and complex novel” with “five or six distinct narrative lines” that was “hard to even tell about [it].” The completed novel is still hard to “tell about.”
Silko did not set out to write a traditional western novel, which is inadequate for telling the stories that her ancestors have handed down through oral tradition. Silko instead chose the structure of ancient Mayan almanacs because they would free her to employ multiple narratives. The almanacs were compiled long ago by Mayans watching their culture slowly disappear through Spanish and Portuguese colonization of the Americas. They were trying to preserve the stories they had in their heads and the glyphs that they had carved into stone. Silko’s novel, like the ancient Mayan almanacs, is a fragmentary collection of stories, dreams, characters, maps, lists, and prophecies.
Almanac of the Dead is ultimately a metanarrative, an attempt to comprehensively explain historical experience and knowledge through stories. Silko claims that the stories came to her through Native American spirits when she began thinking about writing the work. Because Native Americans believe that history is experienced through storytelling and that time is circular (defined by experiences that do not occur linearly), dates and chronology are not important in the novel. The Mayans did not think of days in terms of 24-hour periods. Rather, a day was a being with a personality and that being eventually would return, even if it took centuries. Although the structure of Silko’s work is nontraditional, a novel is nevertheless a Euro-American art form. Using such a vehicle to tell Native American stories presents some challenges to Euro-American readers accustomed to structure, chronological timelines, well-developed characters, and storyline resolutions. Almanac of the Dead has none of these. The novel covers five hundred years of history and incorporates dozens of themes, motifs, ideas, cultures, ideologies, and discourses into a vast mural of revisionist history, told from the viewpoint of the world’s marginalized groups—from the indigenous peoples to the handicapped. To a Euro-American reader, the novel’s multiple settings might seem disorganized and haphazard, yet in the Native American circular time frame it makes sense.
Almanac of the Dead chronicles an incredibly corrupt and depraved legacy handed down by the United States in the twentieth century, a legacy that in Silko’s view sums up the white man’s treatment of the Native American people. It is the era of what Native Americans call “Death-Eye Dog.” Violence, greed, and bloodlust have permeated every strata of society. Traditionally loving and nurturing relationships such as the family have been either destroyed or reincarnated as crime families or human networks for weapons smuggling, pornography, and drugs. Children are abandoned and murdered. Sexuality is no longer an intimate expression of love but a manipulative tool and an instrument of torture. Women are objectified and left out of the reproductive process. Governments are corrupt. Scientific advances meant to alleviate human suffering have been perverted into black market enterprises selling human organs. The world is in chaos.
The Native Americans are not entirely innocent in this story. Silko blames the Aztecs for bringing the European “destroyers” to the Americas because the Aztecs were destroyers themselves, lovers of blood who perverted the true religion by instituting human sacrifice. They beckoned to their fellow destroyers in Europe who followed the lure of bloodlust, sailed to the Americas, and stole the land from the indigenous peoples. Those groups of indigenous people that did not agree with the Aztecs, that did not have...
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