The Path of the Jaguar by Stephen Henighan
Reviewed by Jeremy Luke Hill
The Path of the Jaguar. Thistledown Press, 2016.
In many ways, Stephen Henighan’s new novel The Path of the Jaguar feels like the fictive expression of the ideas laid out in the opening sections of his book of essays, A Report on the Afterlife of Culture (Biblioasis, 2008). They share concerns about cultural identity for Indigenous peoples as globalization threatens traditional languages and practices, as well as a preoccupation with the roles of international aid, tourism, and technology involved in this process. In Afterlife, however, these concerns are mobilized as intellectual arguments for a certain understanding of culture in an age of globalization, whereas Jaguar complicates these arguments through characterological ambiguities.
In the opening pages of Afterlife, Henighan relates that in Guatemala, “one is either indigena or maya or indio, or one is ladino, a person presumed to be of European culture; there is no third term, no allowance for the possibilities of bridging cultures” (11). While Henighan represents this binary between indio and ladino strongly in The Path of the Jaguar, the story centres on Amparo, who occupies the third space that has no term in the language. Amparo identifies strongly as maya, but she has married a man, Eusebio, who is ladino, and she finds herself not only despised by the ladinos as an Indigenous woman, but also rejected by her fellow Mayan women who cannot understand her relationship with Eusebio. At one juncture, she has to concede to a group of Quiché women that her fiancé is a poor, working class ladino. “The other women stared at her,” Henighan writes. “They understood being loyal to a Mayan community, they could imagine leaving the Mayan world to marry a man with a better education and more prospects – but to leave the community for a man who was neither wealthy nor Maya?” (37). These women can only see Amparo as remaining a loyal Mayan or as becoming a ladina like her husband. They have no name for the complex place that she occupies.
Eusebio also lies between the two communities. He leaves the city to come stay in the compound of his wife’s family, in close proximity to her parents and relatives. Although Henighan says in Afterlife that “once you become ladino, by abandoning Mayan customs and ceasing to speak a Mayan language, you are a foreigner; you make this fact clear by expressing disdain for indios, even if your own skin is brown” (12), Eusebio stands as an example of a ladino who inhabits a middle space, marrying an Indigenous woman and returning to her community, despite the fact that this community has no way to name his identity. He remains ladino to them, but this name fails to describe the place he occupies: a socially ambiguous space that never really emerges in the intellectual language of Afterlife.
Another of Afterlife’s arguments that appears more personally and forcefully in Jaguar is the influence of Western aid workers, intellectuals, and returning exiles on the culture of village life in Guatemala. In Jaguar, Henighan describes El Tesoro, a restaurant and handicraft store with a bookstore in the front room, owned by Don Julio (a student who fled the country during the civil war and got his education in Mexico, before returning to Guatemala). The narrative voice describes Don Julio as “promoting the integration of Mayan people into postwar society” (29), but Don Julio himself describes this need to compromise parts of Mayan culture as necessary in order to retain what is truly valuable in it. “To make your culture advance you must give up part of it,” he tells Amparo. “It’s only by compromising with the modern world that you’ll spare part of that richness” (39). Henighan represents Don Julio as a force for the erosion of traditional Mayan culture, but he does so in a much more humanly complicated way than the structure and argument of Afterlife allow. Don Julio is not a disembodied force for globalization. He is sincerely concerned with the preservation of Indigenous cultures, even if he now believes that some elements of that culture may be lost in the pursuit of its preservation.
Ricardo, the Canadian who manages the international student program in which Amparo teaches, functions in a similar way. He is sincerely interested in Amparo’s culture and language, requesting that she teach him to speak Cakchiquel and visiting her at the market in her village, but it is through him that Amparo makes her grand gesture of defiance against the social mores of her village, taking a foreign man by the arm as they walk through the square. It is also through Ricardo that Amparo obtains a cell phone, a new technological connection with the globalized world.
These foreign influences, appearing as anonymous cultural forces in Afterlife's intellectual argument, are made more human and ambiguous in the characters of Jaguar. They are no longer merely instances of globalization exerting a homogenizing influence on an indigenous culture. They are people – sometimes well-meaning, sometimes unselfconscious, sometimes unaware – living out the complex cultural dynamics of rural Guatemala. In this way, The Path of the Jaguar allows Henighan to rearticulate the arguments of The Afterlife of Culture in a way that recognizes the human complexity behind the cultural forces he describes.
Jeremy Luke Hill is the publisher at Vocamus Press, a micro-press that publishes the literary culture of Guelph, Ontario. He is also the Managing Director at Friends of Vocamus Press, a non-profit community organization that supports book culture in Guelph. He has written a collection of poetry, short prose and photography called Island Pieces, a chapbook of poetry called These My Streets, and an ongoing series of poetry broadsheets called Conversations with Viral Media. His criticism and poetry have appeared in places like The Bull Calf, CV2, EVENT Magazine, Free Fall, The Goose, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The Rusty Toque, The Town Crier, and The Windsor Review.
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