Almanac of the Dead – Part One: Gossip, Humour, and Storytelling in Almanac of the Dead and Kochininako

By Madelyn Marie Schoonover

I had been warned about reading Almanac of the Dead: A Novel (1991) several times before I actually started. The standard line I received was that it is a brilliant book, but difficult to read – not just because of its enormous page count (763 in my copy), but also because of its seemingly pessimistic and somewhat fatalistic depiction of the future of the Americas. Just a brief look through the reviews on the Goodreads website demonstrates Almanac’s mixed success with readers. Many give Silko credit for the depth and breadth of her book, calling it “epic,” “intricately plotted,” “cruel,” and “devastating” (“Almanac of the Dead”). However, others find the subject material so repulsive that they believe Silko is some kind of modern-day Marquis de Sade.

One reviewer, who gave the book one star presumably because they had to settle for this as a minimum, writes:

Among the many fold things I disliked about this book (homophobia, long academic pretension, shock tactics, faux-spiritualism, and completely soulless characters), I found the anger in it to be the most disturbing. It was anger DISGUISED as prophesy and renewal, but in the end it was only about destruction and reveling [sic] in the apocalypse […] Yuck. (“Mary Spielmann’s review of Almanac of the Dead”)

Significantly, this review seems to encompass the gut reaction many readers have to Almanac, including professional reviewers. It has essentially the same final perspective on the book as Publishers Weekly’s review, which states: “there are virtually no decent nor likable characters here; even those of indigenous American descent have been corrupted by modern culture and ancient hate. Despite its laudable aims, this meandering blend of mystical folklore, thriller-type violence and futuristic prophecy is unwieldy, unconvincing and largely unappealing” (“Fiction Book Review: Almanac of the Dead”).

While everyone is certainly entitled to their own personal taste, I am disheartened when I read these kinds of reactions to Almanac. On one hand, I can see where reviewers are coming from; the book is often depressing. The narrative skips through time non-linearly – from the arrival of the Conquistadors to an approximate modern day – and skips through the perspectives of over twenty different narrators, both of Euro-American and indigenous descent. The geography of the novel is massive as well, spanning across the American Southwest and down into South and Central America, and even briefly into northern Alaska. Each narrator has their own personal tragedy, often revolving around the loss of some essential element of themselves – either of a loved one, a part of their identity, land, or some combination of all of the above. There are several characters who are in the organ harvesting business and have no qualms about murdering homeless people or children for their own profits. Love connections are not as abundant as sexual liaisons, which are often carried out behind a spouse’s back. The exploitation of the Earth and the precarious precipice to which this has brought humanity is a recurrent motif. All of these are depressing themes the text uses and reuses.

On the other hand, what I think these reviewers are highlighting is not some sort of fatalistic outlook Silko has towards humankind. Rather, as I will show throughout the rest of this essay and a second instalment next week, in these reviews I see an internal confusion that happens when ‘what Indians are’ does not adhere to colonial expectations.

Silko’s unique style, rooted in Native American communal oral storytelling, discombobulates many Euro-American readers. She eschews the moral and temporal certainty of many mainstream American novels and especially deconstructs the Euro-American ideology of the ‘noble savage.’ Doing so subverts many reader’s expectations to the point that they believe Silko made them read 700+ pages for ‘no real reason.’ I came to this conclusion after watching a short interview of Leslie Marmon Silko funded by the University of Arizona. In the video, Silko reads a story strikingly similar to Almanac, wherein the Laguna Pueblo story of Buffalo Man and Kochininako (Yellow Woman) is told and retold throughout time with multiple perspectives, none of which seems to be entirely reliable on their own.

Silko starts the story by saying, “You should understand the way it was back then because it is the same even now,” a statement that would feel right at home in the often cyclical narrative of Almanac (“Leslie Marmon Silko Interview”). Just as in Almanac, the multiple narratives woven together in this short excerpt centre around seduction, misunderstandings, trickster-esque hijinks, love, and communal gossip. After giving the perspective of Kochininako’s husband – “You better have a damn good story […] about where you been for the past ten months and how d’you explain these twin baby boys” – Silko immediately switches to the perspective of Kochininako’s mother: “No, that gossip isn’t true! She didn’t elope, she was kidnapped […] You know my daughter isn’t that kind of girl” (“Leslie Marmon Silk Interview”).

The back-and-forth, he-said-she-said, sometimes blasé, often darkly humorous style of Silko’s Kochininako retelling is present also in Almanac. While some have said that the novel is too sprawling for its own good and, therefore, unsuccessful at coming to a neat conclusion, I argue that there was never supposed to be a neat conclusion. As Kyle Bladow shows in “Timely Objects and the Revolutionary Formerly Known as Marcos”, Silko and many critics after her have noted that the novel itself is actually the eponymous almanac (9). The physical copy of the book that readers hold in their hand is not trying to speak some ultimate truth that Euro-American readers expect of ‘wise’ Native Americans, other than the sacredness and enduring memory of the land and spirits. Rather, just like the almanac in the novel, the story is much more a reflection of humanity in all its flawed, idiosyncratic glory, telling stories about itself to itself.

In Almanac, the most recent keeper of the almanac, Lecha, notes that the original text is interspersed with the ramblings or stories written by its previous keepers. Silko writes:

 The great deal of what had accumulated with the almanac fragments had been debris gathered here and there by aged keepers of the almanac after they had gone crazy […] Whole sections had been stolen from other books and from the proliferation of ‘farmer’s almanacs’ (569-570).

As such, the almanac is less of an objective retelling of history and more of a story one might hear as gossip about town. Rather than teaching us something about land, a ‘true’ sense of a ‘correct’ identity, or what it means to be an Indian, the function of the almanac is to collect stories to demonstrate the different kinds of lives people have lived. But the gossip-style, communal narrative with its unreliable and eccentric characters ultimately does not give any closure. That is not the point.

By structuring the narrative in this way, Silko makes us question the extent to which history can ever be objective. Additionally, by highlighting characters that have Indian ancestry but who eschew their connections to such groups/communities, Silko forces readers to acknowledge the complex ties between colonialism and identity and to re-think the dominant colonising narrative that all Native Americans are in some way more connected to land, wiser, more inherently spiritual, etc.

Another element of community-based storytelling that the narrative structure of the Kochininako retelling highlights is the inherent humour in having no reliable narrator. Silko explains in a follow-up to the story:

You can begin to laugh about things that happened […] That’s another important function in all of this [oral storytelling] is enabling the individual to begin to see things not just as ‘Me alone’ kind of way but to begin to see one’s experiences, one’s fate, one’s tragedies in terms of something not just yourself but everyone else so that it brings everything - brings everyone closer and it makes you seem much more like a part of the family or the group and it all becomes a part of the stories. (“Leslie Marmon Silko Interview”)

In this way, the Kochininako re-telling becomes less a cautious tale about what happens to women who stray outside of expected marital boundaries, and more a reflection of the way communities react to perceived (or real) societal transgressions. The otherwise taboo topic of extra-marital affairs and the unreliability of any narrator in oral storytelling become opportunities not to judge other people necessarily, but to laugh at ourselves and our expectations. The listener and the storyteller become their stories, and so the community learns more about itself the more it tells itself stories.

In this same vein, what I found most striking about this video was Silko’s audience’s reaction to the Kochininako story that, in mainstream Euro-American culture, would be considered taboo. Silko’s audience, a Native American woman, laughs long and hard at the confusion each character seems to have about Kochininako’s predicament and their obsession to pin the blame for the situation on someone else. This woman’s reaction to the taboo topics in the Kochininako retelling made me realize that I, as a white woman, was missing some key cultural element of Silko’s style that arises from her Native American oral storytelling roots.

I posit that while many themes in Almanac are horrifying, disheartening, and meant to be so, there are also many, many instances of humour that often go over Euro-American’s heads. As such, reviewers unfamiliar with the communal storytelling-based mode of writing are more likely to see Almanac as a distasteful, angry, and depressing book. There are moments when it can be all three of these, but there are also many moments where Almanac invites us to laugh at ourselves and our perceptions of the world. It is this quality that makes the text inherently Gothic.

In part two, I will explore the humour in Almanac and how it invokes trickster tendencies in Silko’s writing. I will also explore how the figure of the trickster shares qualities with the Gothic mode. By doing so, I hope to highlight an underrecognized strength of Almanac while bringing a new perspective of what Western readers might constitute a text as Gothic.

 

Works Cited:

“Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko.” Goodreads,            https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/52385.Almanac_of_the_Dead

Bladow, Kyle. “Timely Objects and the Revolutionary Formerly Known as Marcos: Rereading    Almanac of the Dead.” Studies in American Indian Literatures, vol. 29, no. 2, 2017, pp.           1-25.

“Fiction Book Review: Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko, Author Simon &   Schuster.” Publishers Weekly, https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-671-66608-8

“Leslie Marmon Silko Interview (1-3).avi.” YouTube, uploaded by Mau M, 11 July 2010,            https://youtu.be/xyQiV7u9Skk

“Mary Spielmann’s review of Almanac of the Dead.” Goodreads,

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/54759885?book_show_action=true&from_review_pae=1

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Almanac of the Dead: A Novel. New York, Penguin, 1991.

 

Bionote:

Madelyn Marie Schoonover holds an MLitt in the Gothic Imagination from the University of Stirling, UK, where she is currently in her first year of PhD research. She studies erasure and depictions of Native Americans in contemporary American and Native American literature with a particular emphasis on masculinity studies, Eco-gothic, and cultural hybridity.