Juvenal Suárez was the youngest of five brothers, and he had watched all four of his siblings fall prey to the fevers of measles. ‘Mu unteva,’ he’d heard his last brother say, and watched him dissipate just like that, the way flowers or clouds fade away. At that time there were fewer than fifteen members of the Nataibo tribe and only Juvenal seemed to understand that the words held a sad prophecy. A few weeks earlier, an expedition of garimpeiros in search of gold had stumbled upon their Amazon village, and from that moment on the Native population had fallen ill at an alarming rate. ‘Mu unteva,’ his brother had said, proud that none of the garimpeiros could understand what his words meant. They were words that Juvenal Suárez would translate two years later for Von Mühlfeld as ‘this is as far as we come’, speaking a brittle Spanish he had learned years before from the rubber tappers whose arrival had marked the beginning of the end for the Nataibo people. He’d been only twelve or thirteen years old then, and he had never seen a white man. He couldn’t know, then, what the older people remembered: that those men were demons, thirsty for rubber and blood, capable of unspeakable atrocities. Much less could he know that during those years, on a distant continent, the world was laying its bets in a war that would destroy all but the heavens. Even the Nataibo, who had pursued isolation and privacy with such zeal, were not safe from that vile war. It was 1942 or 1943, and, when the Japanese captured the Southeast Asian rubber plantations, the Allied forces had been obliged to return to the route that a century before had led thousands of men into the nightmare of an unprecedented hell. Hope and a lust for victory were returning then, and the Amazon’s waters were witness to the return of a monster everyone thought had been defeated. That was when a lost expedition of rubber tappers came into contact with the tribe, and Juvenal Suárez first saw the pale and pinkish skin of white men. In those days his name was not Juvenal Suárez, and if not for the old folks’ memories he wouldn’t even have known that they were men. In the following months he would learn it the hard way, on those rubber plantations where slavery came wrapped in the whisper of a strange language. That would be where he first heard the Spanish language that later, over the course of his life, he would learn and then renounce.
All that would remain of those years was a handful of words and the memory of the great wave of malaria that washed over them a few weeks after the rubber tappers’ arrival. That first epidemic, furtive and deadly, would take both his parents and one brother. Even more important, it took away the illusion of solitude and isolation that had insulated the tribe up to then. So when the white men exhausted all the rubber in the region and finally set them free, the Nataibo decided to set off upriver in search of the peace that had now become synonymous with survival. After four days, they found a spot at a bend in the Tigre River that seemed remote enough, and they decided that was where they would seek the tranquility the rubber tappers had stolen. And they found it, or at least they thought so.
The years that follow are serene ones during which Juvenal cautiously watches the passage of time, aware that death, disguised as civilisation, is always hiding just around the corner. And so, one afternoon like any other, a decade and a half later, the hum of an airplane interrupts his nap. Rubber has been replaced by oil, and a US company – repeating a gesture as ancient as it is perverse – has decided that the only way to conquer the jungle is through evangelism. A week later they see the first missionaries arrive from Puerto Rico, Bibles in hand. The image brings back the traumas of the rubber exploitation, the memory of his sick mother, the violent murmur of that language he has forgotten but that he starts to remember, with terror and fascination, as one more trauma. Those men and women don’t want rubber. They are after something more ethereal but fearsome: the conversion of souls. And that conversion starts with a name. On the second day the missionaries gather the tribe, put them in a line, and baptise them with Christian names. He is twenty-seven years old, and a short, round girl with a face that inspires affection and tenderness looks at him and says that from this day onward his name will be Juvenal Suárez. He comes to accept it, not so much by choice as by rote – after hearing the name so much he ends up recognising himself in it. Along with the name, the girl gives him another talisman: a Spanish-language Bible that he will translate to Nataibo in his free time, a process that will take years but will ultimately convince him that the white man’s language is not necessarily the language of evil. This is a period of peaceful coexistence, of learning language and religion. It ends the day when, the missionaries gone, the Nataibo see an expedition of garimpeiros arriving in the distance and realise it’s time to migrate again. The trip takes ten days. This time, they carry the weight of inherited Bibles and the awareness that the jungle is filling up with enemies and intruders. They also, unbeknown to them, carry the first outbreaks of the measles that will ultimately destroy them.
Later, Juvenal Suárez will summarise that time with a word my father will one day hear emerge from the tape recorder and copy into his diary: ‘Na’teya.’ Paranoia. From that moment on the Nataibo’s existence will be marked by awareness of their imminent disappearance. Still, fifty members of the tribe remain, and none are willing to give up without a fight. Prepared to battle it out to the end, the Nataibo prepare their settlement as an impenetrable fort, surrounding their village with traps and pits, even building a tiered surveillance system to warn of any enemy landing. They can’t imagine that the enemy is already inside, in the form of a virus that will eventually reduce them to a handful of men forgotten by history. Just a week later, a member of the tribe has a fever, and when the shaman sees the reddish rash that marks his face, he knows there is no chant or prayer that can save them. And just like that, Juvenal sees the rash take the members of his tribe one by one, with the mysterious logic of contagion he knows so well, and he is convinced that his turn will come any minute. He watches his oldest brother die and then his wife, he watches his son and his uncle die. But it’s at that moment, beside the brother whose whispered last words he will translate for Von Mühlfeld as ‘this is as far as we come’, when he understands that perhaps his fate will be even worse than his family’s. He intuits, as he looks at the dying face of his last living brother, that perhaps the gods have ordained for him the misfortune of being his culture’s only survivor. ‘Mu unteva,’ he repeats in anguish, and in the words he hears the stealthy echo of a private language.
Perhaps that was the echo my father heard again four years later, sitting before that Alpine landscape so far from the Amazon, when he heard Juvenal Suárez’s recorded voice. It was a voice that held no traces of melancholy, no irony. Merely the objective diligence of one who knows his own fate and decides to accept it without complaint. Something in the timbre of his diction recalled the exactitude of a man merely going along with a pursuit that he may not believe in, but on which someone close to him has pinned all their dreams. ‘Juvenal Suárez, Dictionary, 1965,’ the voice had said, and my father could immediately divine what was at stake there: the hope for survival of the Nataibo language had been reduced to a couple of magnetic tapes where future generations would seek the vestiges of a culture that had long since ceased to exist. He also knew that Von Mühlfeld’s shadow loomed over that project, and it was that story, so full of contagion and solitude, of purity and impurity, that held the keys to the paradox that had led the anthropologist into madness. Knowing my father, I can guarantee that he said nothing that day, merely listened to the unfortunate adventure of Juvenal Suárez, accepted the responsibility that secret entailed, and promised that on the fifth day he would take the tapes with him and continue the project Von Mühlfeld had been unable to complete. Knowing my father, I’m sure that a certain reticence kept him silent, and only hours later, in the hotel, would he have dared to open his diary and write down the tale I’m retelling here. A story he would try to synthesise with a couple of phrases that as a child I read without understanding, but that today pursue me as the key to my own biography. Those phrases like fists that say:
‘the theatre of a voice doing battle with history, the silences of a language doing battle with oblivion.’
Image © Alamy, Grundig TK 1 tape recorder, Germany, 1960