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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 813

Claude Lévi-Strauss began Tristes Tropiques as a novel, and among the remnants of his novelistic intentions are the book’s title (literally, “sad tropics”) and a long description of an ocean sunset, a tedious purple passage that illustrates why Lévi-Strauss is not a modern master of the novel. Generally, however, his...

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Claude Lévi-Strauss began Tristes Tropiques as a novel, and among the remnants of his novelistic intentions are the book’s title (literally, “sad tropics”) and a long description of an ocean sunset, a tedious purple passage that illustrates why Lévi-Strauss is not a modern master of the novel. Generally, however, his original intentions seem to have exercised a beneficial influence. Throughout most of the book his style is highly literary and readable, not the abstract scholarly style one might expect from the great structuralist anthropologist, and this engaging style in part explains the work’s history as a best-seller. Another part of the explanation is the work’s equally engaging content, which shows the young Lévi-Strauss finding his vocation as an anthropologist and going on his first (and actually most important) forays into the field—travels among the Indians of Brazil’s Mato Grosso and Amazonia during the 1930’s. Both the style and the content make Tristes Tropiques the best introduction to Lévi-Strauss and his work.

If Tristes Tropiques became an autobiographical instead of a fictional work, it nevertheless retains revealing parallels to fictional form. The overall work is reminiscent of a Bildungsroman, or novel of development of the main character. Tristes Tropiques shows Lévi-Strauss not only finding his vocation but also developing the views that underlie his later achievement, particularly his views on primitive and modern cultures. This development has a retrospective quality, since Lévi-Strauss is narrating it fifteen to twenty years later—a common technique in the Bildungsroman in order to give the work perspective. His later perspective enables Lévi-Strauss to look upon his earlier struggles somewhat indulgently, perhaps romantically, and no doubt with more humor than he felt at the time: His earlier self resembles a Conradian hero setting off into the heart of darkness, only to discover that the more dangerous darkness resides in the culture from which he came. This journey of personal and cultural discovery takes, as Clifford Geertz noted, “the form of the standard legend of the Heroic Quest,” earning for Lévi-Strauss the title “the anthropologist as hero” from Susan Sontag.

Lévi-Strauss’ perspective also permits him to depart from chronological order, to use flash-forwards and flashbacks at will. These techniques enable him to compare and contrast his experiences in Brazil during the 1930’s with his experiences in Pakistan and India in 1950. They also allow him to group his material roughly by subject matter, thus combining expository with narrative principles and leading to the book’s strange circular movement.

Tristes Tropiques consists of nine parts, each containing from three to seven chapters. Part 1 treats Lévi-Strauss’ transatlantic journeys: It begins in France in 1934, on the eve of his first departure for Brazil, but soon jumps ahead to a 1941 crossing. Most of part 1 is devoted to this 1941 trip aboard a crowded steamer with other Jews fleeing France’s Nazi conquerors. Part 2 then circles back to France in 1934, telling how young Lévi-Strauss got the job to go to Brazil and teach sociology at the University of Sao Paulo; circles further back to relate his university studies in philosophy and law, then his decision to become an anthropologist; and concludes with the 1934 voyage and a six-page description of an ocean sunset. Part 3 continues with the 1934 voyage and eventually reaches Sao Paulo. Part 4 describes Sao Paulo and other parts of Brazil, then jumps ahead to 1950 and three chapters describing Pakistan and India. Part 5 circles back to 1930’s Brazil and finally begins the narrative proper—that is, a series of anthropological expeditions to study Brazil’s primitive Indian tribes. The expeditions follow in chronological order, with the names of the tribes studied—Caduveo, Bororo, Nambikwara, and Tupi-Kawahib— providing the titles for parts 5 through 8. Part 9 concludes with a summary of an unpublished play along French neoclassical lines (“The Apotheosis of Augustus”) that Lévi-Strauss wrote in the jungle, a summing up of the book’s themes, and a return to Pakistan and India for some final slams at Islam and Western civilization.

This potent mix is further stirred by incidental or digressive commentary on personal, geographical, sociological, linguistic, philosophical, and anthropological matters. Apparently the hidden reason Lévi-Strauss became an anthropologist is that it allowed him to comment on anything and everything. In any event, his postmodernist freedom of form and range of content in Tristes Tropiques make Lévi-Strauss the Milan Kundera of the anthropological set, with this vital difference: Whereas the contemporary Czech novelist was inspired by Denis Diderot (1713-1784), the great rationalist, Lévi-Strauss was inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), the great Romantic. Toward the end of Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss freely acknowledges his debt to “Rousseau, our master and brother, to whom we have behaved with such ingratitude but to whom every page of this book could have been dedicated, had the homage been worthy of his great memory.”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 94

Donato, Eugenio. “Tristes Tropiques: The Endless Journey,” in MLN. LXXXI (May, 1966), pp. 270-287.

Geertz, Clifford. “The Cerebral Savage: On the Works of Claude Lévi-Strauss,” in Encounter. XXVIII (April, 1967), pp. 25-32.

Hayes, E. Nelson, and Tanya Hayes, eds. Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Anthropologist as Hero, 1970.

Leach, Edmund. Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1970.

McNelly, Cleo. “Natives, Women, and Claude Lévi-Strauss: A Reading of Tristes Tropiques as Myth,” in The Massachusetts Review. XVI (Winter, 1975), pp. 7-29.

Mehlman, Jeffrey. A Structural Study of Autobiography: Proust, Leiris, Sartre, Lévi-Strauss, 1971.

Pace, David. Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Bearer of Ashes, 1983.

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