Almanac of the Dead

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Almanac of the Dead is a novel that is larger than life, larger almost than history. Spanning the five hundred years of European rule in Mexico and America’s Southwest, this epic charts the exploitation of the land and its peoples by Europeans and their descendants until the book’s final, apocalyptic scenes, when, in some near and violent future, the forces of the dispossessed, guided by the spirits of the dead, gather together to take back their lands.

Part Native American history, part mythic prophecy, part contemporary cultural analysis, Almanac of the Dead is more and less than all of these. Its focus is on the recent present and on what has happened to people—European American, Mexican, and Native American—who have been corrupted by the greed and violence of the contemporary world. The book, however, hops back and forth between the present and the past to trace the history of this world and the roots of the characters’ failures.

If the novel seems a disparate mix of elements, it is. The map on the inside and back covers of the book lists dozens of major characters in stories that take place in Tucson, San Diego, and points south. Yet this “Five Hundred Year Map,” as Silko writes, also “foretells the future of all the Americas” and the violent prophecy that is yet to be: “the disappearance of all things European.”

The novel is divided into six parts, each part consisting of from one to eight books and each book containing from four to twenty chapters. There are at least half a dozen sets of characters who dominate the different parts of the novel, often for hundreds of pages at a time, and readers may lose touch with certain characters in some sections. By the end, however, most of the major characters have touched the others’ lives (often sexually, usually violently), and many gather in the apocalyptic ending. It is a gripping and frightening fictional vision.

The center of the novel is Tucson. In the present, Lecha and Zeta Cazador are living on a remote ranch left to them years before by their father after his suicide. They are Yaqui (Pima) Indians born in Mexico who years before emigrated north from their Sonoran childhood home. Now they are surrounded by security systems and vicious dogs and are involved—as nearly everyone is here—in drugs and gun-running.

Lecha has returned to the ranch after a stint as a television psychic, but she is also suffering from cancer. Before she dies, she wants to decipher the “almanac of the dead,” the ancient notebooks that she and her sister have inherited from their maternal grandmother, Yoeme, notebooks that give the history of their people and foretell the future. (The story of how the books were smuggled north by children years before is one of the fascinating fictional nuggets in this rich lode.)

Seese has moved from San Diego and sought Lecha out after seeing her on television; she hopes that Lecha, as a psychic, can help to find her kidnapped baby. By the end, however, Seese realizes the child is dead, and she has instead become Lecha’s assistant, administering drugs to slow her illness and deciphering the notebooks. Seese has herself withdrawn from a cocaine habit, but her attempts to sell the drugs she has saved help to propel the dramatic and violent events at the end of the novel.

Seese’s story of her escape from San Diego is one of two that opens the novel; the other is Sterling’s, whose story frames the novel. A Laguna Pueblo who has been banished from his reservation because he let outsiders violate their sacred stone idols, at the end of the novel he will return to see the reservation’s giant stone snake again. These are just a few of the major characters in Tuscon; others include Ferro (Lecha’s son), Paulie (his former lover), Jamey (his current lover), Root (Lecha’s old lover), Mosca, Calabazas, and many more.

The second center of the novel is some hundreds of miles south on another stop in the drug trade, in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Mexico, and in the person of Menardo, a mestizo who has become rich and powerful and has built a lavish house. Menardo spends his days and nights in fear of assassination; ironically, he dies when Tacho, his chauffeur, fires a gun at him to test a bullet-proof vest.

If the novel has a thematic focus, it is the corruption of the present. Few characters are free of the criminal drug use and trafficking that goes on. Whole sets of major characters are actively involved in smuggling and selling drugs and using the money to sell arms to various shadowy groups. The fringe art world in San Diego from which Seese fled is defined by its drug use but involves a number of perverse sexual businesses (torture, the sexual abuse of children, and pornography). It is not a pretty picture that Silko paints, but it is a highly believable one.

On the flip side of this world of drugs and corruption is the world of Native American life and spirits, people and forces that are helping to change this world. The best parts of Almanac of the Dead concern Native American history, both in Mexico and in the southwestern United States. Out of this history, a number of symbols and prophecies have emerged: The almanac is one; so, too, is the giant stone snake that has made a mysterious appearance in the Laguna Pueblo reservation near Albuquerque. In the south, the forces are the twin brothers, El Feo and Tacho, who are guided by twin macaw spirit beings. Underlying the divided political geography are related myths: The ancient Mexican serpent god Quetzalcoatl emerges as the giant stone snake of the Native American...

(The entire section is 2307 words.)