Maíra was the first novel by the Brazilian intellectual Darcy Ribeiro (1922–97), followed by three significant works: Mule (O mulo, 1981), Savage Utopia (Utopia Selvagem, 1982), and My-Self (Migo, 1988). Maíra was translated into English in 1984. Although Ribeiro was attracted to literature from an early age, authoring an unpublished novel at the age of 20, he returned to writing fiction only after becoming an established anthropologist, statesman, and educator. As a young ethnographer, Ribeiro spent 10 years living in villages in and around the Amazon and Pantanal. Maíra is, in the words of the author, “a novel about the pain and the joy of being an Indian” and was heavily influenced by his experience among native Brazilians, emblematized in the fictitious tribe of the Mairun. The novel has had many editions and has been translated into eight languages.
In typical modernist fashion, Maíra combines different narrative styles and strategies: The point of view oscillates between first and third person; free indirect discourse alternates with mythical narratives; and the language of government reports contrasts with ethnographic writing. The narrative also defies linear chronology, blending past and present with the timeless mode of myth. The juxtaposition of these techniques and elements aims at portraying a discontinuous, fragmentary reality and challenging the authority of an allpowerful narrator. In Maíra, a polyphony of voices emerges: an omniscient narrator, the characters themselves, the Mairun gods, and the like. This “collective authorship” could be seen as an implicit critique of anthropology, inasmuch as it has been deemed a discourse about the Other that excludes the voice of the Other. Furthermore, Indian and Latin words and sentences interspersed in the text and the inclusion of an entire untranslated passage in Tupi-Guraní at the end of the novel attest to the linguistic presence of the Other in the text.
The novel—divided into four parts entitled Antiphony, Homily, Gospel, and Corpus after the parts of the mass—begins as a murder mystery. On the banks of the Iparana River, home to the Mairun tribe, the naked bodies of a white woman and her newborn twins are found, prompting an investigation of the cause of death by the local police and Indigenous Affairs Authority, FUNAI. This puzzling event, which remains unresolved, drives the novel forward, pointing symbolically to the impossibility of entirely understanding the Other.
While the investigation is proceeding, the narrative flashes back to the Mairun village, where the recently deceased chieftain Anacã is being buried by the community in the absence of Avá, his successor. Avá, a young Mairun man who has symbolically changed his name to Isaías, finds himself in Rome, struggling with his religious vocation and his identity. In his view, the Mairuns are doomed either way: “Everyone who leaves the village will become someone like me; that is nothing. Those who remain there will only inherit the bitterness of being Indian.” Finally, Isaías decides to return to his village. In the meantime, Alma, a young, troubled white woman, joins an order of nuns serving in the Mairun region because she feels she needs a mission to redeem her life. They meet at a hotel in Brasília, while waiting for a flight to the village, and begin a conversation about their respective vocations. The location of their encounter is symbolic as the planned capital of Brazil represents “a new creation, the new style of a new man,” a vision that contrasts with Mairun mythology where from the “infinite darkness” “our Creator, the Nameless One . . . alone, discovered himself as such” and proceeded to go about “inventing creations.”
After an arduous journey, Avá and Alma arrive at the mission where Avá/Isaías, to the disappointment of the fathers, announces his withdrawal from the priesthood. Sent away from the mission, he continues his journey to the Mairun village with Alma, being received by his people as the chieftain-to-be. Although he conforms to the rule of marrying a local woman instead of Alma, Avá is uncomfortable in this role, feeling he has lost his Mairun soul. In contrast, Alma, whose name means “soul” in Portuguese, is embraced by the community, adapts to it living “a season of long blue days,” and eventually becomes a mirixorã, a class of women who do not marry or have children. But her fate is different as she does become pregnant. She is indeed the dead woman from the beginning of the novel.
Alongside Avá and Alma, the novel portrays other characters such as Xisto, black mystical preacher; Juca, a tradesman who has commerce with the Mairuns; Bob and Gertrude, American Protestant missionaries; as well as government officials and local residents. Also, the Mairun gods—Maíra, Mosingar, Micur, and others—often “inhabit” the bodies of humans to experience life through them.
It could be argued that Avá/Isaías and Alma represent opposite poles of the anthropologist’s bordercrossing experience: one, the Mairun Indian who attempts to integrate into Western culture, and the other, a white woman wanting to abandon “civilization” and find a purpose by “going native.” In the end, the novel laments the tragic consequences of such border-crossings: Avá survives but at the expense of his identity, while Alma gains a Mairun soul but loses her life. The complexity of this reality is acknowledged by Avá toward the end of the novel when he understands that “truth is not to be found in one place. And it is not a single thing. It is everywhere; it is multiple, dispersed and contradictory.”
Ribeiro, Darcy. The Americas and Civilization. Translated by Linton Lomas Barrett and Marie McDavid Barrett. New York: Dutton, 1971.
———. The Brazilian People: The Formation and Meaning of Brazil. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2000.
———. The Civilization Process. Translated by Betty J. Meggers. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1968.
———. Maira. Translated by E. H. Goodland and Thomas Colchie. New York: Vintage Books, 1984.