Saturday, April 21, 2007

Fathers and Crows: Culture Clash

"Fathers and Crows" is a rich book, but one of its greatest pleasures is watching "Savages" and Frenchmen try to understand the differences between each other's cultures. Vollmann seems to have a perfect handle on this; his explanations are convincing and often quite subtle.

In the chapter called "The Exercise of Hell," Membertou (tribal elder of the Micmac) deals playfully with a topic that the French (represented here by Lescarbot) take quite seriously (though not nearly as seriously as the Jesuits will a few years later).
Lescarbot spoke to him of christening. What a stupid bearded word! He could hardly say it!

What is christening for? he asked.

To keep your soul from getting lost.

In the woods? -- Membertou (who could grind chert-stones to bits with his teeth, who could swallow a stick two hands long) did not comprehend this answer. His soul never got lost.

No, in Hell, cried Lescarbot. His eyes gleamed.

Where is Hell? asked Membertou patiently.

Under the ground.

But we never go there!


To Lescarbot he said gravely: Brother, I seem to see us both in Hell together, eating much meat and laughing at the DEVILS. What do you say to that? -- for he wanted to try the man's courage.

But at this, all the Iron People shouted out against him, rudely, as if he were not in his own Country.

Membertou gazed upon them. --Brothers, learn once and for all: I speak here, even in this drafty box you've built. When I open my mouth, you must listen. I sit while others stand. It is not the custom in my Country for friends to shout against friends.

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