Book Review: Almanac of the Dead
By Heathen Chinese
If I were to recommend a single book to any pagan, polytheist, anti-capitalist or resident of North America, it would be Almanac of the Dead. Larry McMurtry writes in a blurb on the back of the book, “If Karl Marx had chosen to make Das Kapital a novel set in the Americas, he might have come out with a book something like this.” Perhaps, or perhaps not, since Karl Marx could not possibly have the same lived experience as Leslie Marmon Silko.
Silko is a Laguna Pueblo writer living outside of the Southern Arizona city of Tucson. Her 763-page novel spans the entirety of North America and Mesoamerica geographically, but it all revolves around the central nexus of Tucson. In the dimension of time, Almanac is simultaneously rooted in the codices of the past, unmistakably situated in the present day world of cocaine smuggling and television psychics, and oriented towards the apocalyptic changes-to-come of the near future.
This review is being published on May 13. One hundred and sixty-nine years ago, on this day in 1846, the United States declared war on the First Federal Republic of Mexico, formally initiating a war which eventually resulted in the annexation of New Mexico and Alta California, including most of what is now Arizona. The land in question, of course, was indigenous land, despite the territorial claims of the government of Mexico. The area surrounding Tucson (Tohono O’odham land, with a strong Yaqui presence as well) was not actually annexed by the United States until the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, but nonetheless, Tucson is a city defined by its location on the open wound known as the U.S.-Mexico border. It is a city shaped by liminality, and by the violence which gave birth to that liminality. Bank robber John Dillinger was captured there in 1934. Thousands of migrants continue to attempt to cross the harsh Sonoran desert—many do not make it all the way across. Silko writes, “Tucson was too close to Mexico. Tucson was Mexico, only no one in the United States had realized it yet.”
Almanac of the Dead was published in 1991, four hundred and ninety-nine years after a Genoese navigator first stabbed Taíno earth with the flag of Castile and León. In 1994, three years after Almanac was published, the Mayan rebels of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation issued their First Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle. One of Almanac‘s nineteen “books” features a guerrilla army-turned-native land reclamation movement dealing with very similar tensions between orthodox Marxism and indigenous communities. Of course, these dynamics are nothing unique to the Zapatistas, they have been grappled with throughout Latin America for many decades. Yet it’s clear from her tone that Silko isn’t just writing about history, she is writing about the ever-imminent near future, and her words resonate with just as much ominous portent in 2015 as in 1991. Perhaps even more so, given the benefit of hindsight, though it doesn’t take a prophet to predict that “California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado—all the southwestern states will run out of drinking water,” or a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Silko hints at the possibility of a sympathetic magic or subterranean convergence between the struggles of the like-minded, and the pages of her novel serve as a meeting ground for a vast array of characters whose real-life counterparts may or may not have met in the waking world. A few of Almanac‘s most memorable characters: Clinton, an Ogou-worshiping black man organizing homeless veterans into a “Poor People’s Army;” the Barefoot Hopi, who prophecies to prisoners of all races about “the day all the walls fall down;” Mosca, a superstitious drug dealer who quits his job to join the Barefoot Hopi’s nascent millenarian movement; Calabazas, a Yaqui smuggler and Mosca’s old boss, who “would never abandon what he called ‘the war that had never ended,’ the war for the land. He wanted to call every successful shipment or journey a victory in this war;” Zeta, Calabazas’s former partner-in-crime who “had not argued with him, but [who] had had her own ideas about ‘the war;'” Zeta’s twin sister Lecha, the aforementioned television psychic (now retired—or more accurately, in hiding), who is transcribing the eponymous Almanac of the Dead. “When the time came, all these scattered crazies and their plans would complement and serve one another in the chaos to come.”
Ultimately, Almanac is about sovereignty: the governments of the United States and Mexico have never had, do not currently have, and will never have the sovereignty granted by the land itself. Of course, in her particular imaginings of what indigenous reclamation of sovereignty might look like, Silko does not speak for all natives (no single writer does). Non-native anti-capitalists should be careful not to cherry pick only those authors whom they can use to validate their own political ideologies. Almanac of the Dead, however, is such a rich and complex work that any reader’s perspective is bound to be expanded by it. What Silko writes about is bigger than politics, bigger than any one religious tradition:
What was coming could not be stopped; the people might join or not […] It made no difference because what was coming was relentless and inevitable; it might require five or ten years of great violence and conflict. It might require a hundred years of spirit voices and simple population growth, but the result would be the same: tribal people would retake the Americas; tribal people would retake ancestral land all over the world. This was what earth’s spirits wanted: her indigenous children who loved her and did not harm her.
Heathen Chinese is the son of Chinese immigrants. He is a diasporic Chinese polytheist living in the San Francisco Bay Area (stolen Ohlone land). He practices ancestor veneration and worships (among others) the warrior god Guan Di, who has had a presence in California since the mid-1800s. He writes sporadically at https://heathenchinese.wordpress.com