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On ethnotragedy

Narrative ethnography is a strange subgenre. Peculiar transformations happen when we drop our analytic frameworks and just try to tell a story. We shift closer to the form of the novel – a fact about which Andrew Beatty is fairly explicit – in which truth claims come less from breaking a society into its constituent parts than from an appeal to the general comprehensibility of the lives of others, the basic similarity of great little human dramas, and, in the end, the possibility of empathy and emotional connection with other humans, be they real or imaginary.

There does exist a tradition of anthropological storytelling, of course. After the Ancestors belongs with works such as Tristes Tropiques, Clastres’ Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians, Turnbull’s day-and-night diptych of Forest People and Mountain People, and Descola’s Spears of Twilight, though only Descola’s approaches Andrew Beatty’s new book for sheer depth of ethnographic detail. Tristes Tropiques, as Geertz (1973) said, is about the opposite of ethnographic knowledge, a piece of non-fieldwork. But these books share some key traits. Aside from standing as accessible companion pieces to more traditional scholarly works, these are meditations on the theme of loss. The Old Ways are changing, and their disappearance is not just one more iteration of the general flux of historical transformation but, so it seems, part of a much broader cultural extinction beneath the modern meteorite. That was how Weber and Durkheim saw it, anyway.

Click to enlargeAndrew Beatty with the village bard, Ama Gamböta

Andrew Beatty with the village bard, Ama Gamböta


There is sometimes a nostalgic tinge to this picture of modern history. Clastres and Turnbull, in their narrative turns, were incurably romantic, and the Ik of Uganda, unravelled by famine and displacement, became for Turnbull the harrowing evidence of a romanticism disillusioned. They become gargoyles of cruelty, and avatars of the worst excesses of rationalism and modern statecraft, the mirror image of the idyllic Ituri pygmies. After the Ancestors, by contrast, is refreshingly and mercifully unromantic. It is a story about a village in the slow, painful transition from a heroic age to a modern bureaucratic one – as numerous Shakespeare references indicate – but the antidote to misty nostalgia about the heroic past is our total immersion in the petty, anxious world of local Realpolitik. Our main protagonist, Ama Darius, makes a great ambivalent antihero. A master of the old arts of oratory, insinuation, and negotiation, he is also condemned never to quite have his ambitions work out, and always, despite his talents, an outsider. Times are changing, and after a brawl between two villages Ama Darius becomes the chief negotiator of a dispute in which, as Beatty puts it, “On trial in that smoke-filled room was nothing less than the authority of the ancestors.” (p. 211). It is one of the book’s most remarkable chapters, told through verbatim transcripts of the disputants’ orations, but revolving around one question: will the resulting agreement be sealed with a binding legal contract, or by the curse of the ancestors, invoked with the breaking of a chicken’s neck? Ama Darius outperforms all and somehow loses, and in this way change slowly becomes real.

In another key scene, Ama Darius undermines the feast that he is ostensibly helping Beatty arrange in order to cement his place in the village, and this is part of the point. His politicking extends very much to the ethnographic observer, who will have to negotiate many such encounters in order to get the information he wants but also, hopefully, maintain some kind of good personal relationships with his hosts.

The presence of the fieldworker in the story is the most striking effect of the narrative, novelistic form. It is not less artificial than the analytic style of academic ethnography, as Beatty tells us (p. 210): “In the field things happen, as they do everywhere, in no particular order and according to no plan.” But where standard ethnography reflects the ethnographer’s post-field process of ordering and dissecting, this kind of story reflects instead the fieldwork process. It is a tale of the decline of ancestors, but also about the deeply uncomfortable process of entering somebody’s world. And what makes this process uncomfortable and interesting is something that Niasans, too, struggle with: the anxiety of exchange.

Anthropologists often enter the field as unimaginably wealthy figures, yet without any of the attachments and obligations that turn wealth into status, or debts into moral attachments. So people, of course, ask you for things, because they need them and you have them, and each time you must calculate what else is going on, what levels of interests are playing out, how other people’s expectations or envy will play into your transaction. After working in highland Ethiopia, I read with total recognition Beatty’s account of endless conversations in which villagers tell him that other villagers are cheating him. All exchanges are personal, so how can you not take people’s attempts to get things from you personally? Every anthropologist owes a “mysterious debt”, as Beatty puts it, to his or her informants, for their hospitality and for the information on which we will build our careers. The attempt to match that debt with pig feasts and loaned pressure lamps is fieldwork’s chief hidden objective. But this is a story about a place and a time in which exchange is, for everyone, fraught and agonistic. Ama Darius and others make frequent reference to a decline of kindness and solidarity in the village, and there are moments – when somebody gets sick and nobody wants to help – when this feels like something more than the usual moral revisionism of elders. I read this with the feeling that something had already gone badly wrong; something just under the surface, and Beatty suggests as much with his occasional comparisons to his later, more harmonious fieldwork experience in Java. The time, he says, is out of joint, and the reader’s only surprise is that the Hamlet reference didn’t crop up three hundred pages earlier.

Beatty is not the only outsider in his story. In fact one of our main themes is how much of life in Orahua (really, in all societies) revolves around how you deal with strangers. My personal favourite parts of this book are the moments when strangers arrive. Each is a pitch-perfect vignette of self-satire: the Javanese priest’s wife explaining at length how she prays to God for strength to bear the suffering of being in the village; the incredible Porkas craze for betting on the English football pools; the drunken government man with his gold pen singing the Cholera Song to teach villagers to practice proper hygiene. But behind it all lurk more menacing shadows, which Niasans encapsulate with the pithy phrase “Army Enters Village.” Spoiler alert: the army never arrives, but there are constant reminders of a spectral and arbitrary terror that could press itself upon village life at any moment. After the ancestors, in the end, is Indonesia, which is felt, at least for the moment, as a venal and capricious absurdity.

But nor is this a sudden or recent incursion of the outside world. We are told about the Great Repentance, a wave of charismatic fervour that swept through Nias in the 1920s and to the surprise even of the missionaries working there. I wanted to know more, especially since the Epilogue tells us of another proliferation of Pentecostal practice in the time since Beatty’s fieldwork in the late 1980s. But one of the virtues of the narrative form is that nothing falls off topic (as it might in a study of ‘religion’ or ‘politics’), so we hear plenty about the routinized Christianity of Niasans in the ethnographic present. This is a moral framework to which people make continual reference, and whose authority cannot really be questioned (especially given state policy), but whose moral world exists in a state of constant negotiation with the world, to Beatty much more lively, of kin politics, speechmaking, feasting, and pig exchange. “The real thinkers,” we are told (p. 321), “did not attend church.” We can hardly blame them, given the sequence of fish-out-of-water incomers who are sent to teach them morality. But Christianity is, nonetheless, part of the fabric of Orahua, and the Great Repentance has left deep marks. Missionaries and Niasans have changed each other, and each other’s languages (p. 89). Locals in the early 20th century must have wondered what would come after the ancestors, too. So we get the feeling, not of being thrust from stasis into global history (the bad kind of loss narrative) but from one kind of complex, emergent world into another, and the key question is how we find the moral authority to evaluate, relate, and to repair when things go wrong, as they inevitably do.

The book opens with quotes from Gogol and Shakespeare (Timon of Athens, and the theme of the irascibility of increasingly isolated old men is appropriate). Later, we get, among others, Heaney – incidentally or not, a translator of Beowulf, a Christian reflection on pagan glory. It turns out there is a pretty rich repertoire of Western poetry, prose, and drama on the decline of heroism, and especially on the resistance of the old warrior-guard to the upward shift of legitimacy and violence into the hands of outside authorities. It’s worth thinking about what these quotations actually do. On the one hand, they suggest that the stories of these Sumatran villagers have the same grandeur and gravitas as the tragedies of the Western canon. But they also speak to the literary ambitions of the author (I suspect most anthropologists have wanted to be novelists at one time or other) – this book wants to speak on an emotional level, as tragedy and comedy do. The epigrams set the book firmly in the tragic mode, in the old style: men of greatness will be overcome by inexorable, much duller forces beyond their control, aided along by the protagonists’ own over-reaching. Someone will die, and a new order will be ushered in. In this respect we are not disappointed, but the attitude towards the passing heroic age is one of pronounced ambivalence, mirrored by Beatty’s own feelings towards his hosts. He summarizes old Niasan social and political life in one telling series of great tragic themes: “suffering pride, cruelty, cunning, ambition, resentment, triumph – rarely joy – were on constant display” (p. 300). Based on the ample ethnographic material provided, it’s not an unfair description.

But ethnographic habits do not always lend themselves to travel writing. The prose here is stacked not towards snappy reading but rather towards the scholarly prerogative on detail and data. It’s hard to imagine Beatty, an ethnographer, proceeding otherwise. What is noticeably different about the prose in this book, compared to standard academic writing, is its descriptiveness. Adjectives abound, and an old statue or a pair of tennis shorts become metonymic literary devices in a way that would be hard (but not impossible) to incorporate in a standard ethnographic account.

What a standard ethnography would conceal, modestly and perhaps dishonestly, is the ethnographer’s personal aesthetic and moral responses to people and places. Ethnographers typically don’t describe people as coarse, pretty, weak, or lazy. Even if it’s true. But this ethnographer does, and I still can’t decide if it’s jarring or refreshing. It is after all a story about doing fieldwork, and being a man doing fieldwork, with one’s wife, and the personal, emotional, and sensory overload that can involve. I’m reminded, more egregiously, of Clastres’ exaltation of the gracious, swanlike necks of Guayaki women. But a properly reflexive ethnography should be immanent and involved in a sensory world, and open about the conditions of its production, without making these the central theme or obsession. It is the narrative style, and the effort to write a book that will be of interest to someone other than professional anthropologists, that brings these dilemmas to light.

On that count, I hope this book will be read by a general audience. It is built on ethnographic work of quite phenomenal quality, and it largely succeeds in its efforts to move its readers and make us care about our protagonists. But it’s not actually obvious where this book is pitched. Published by Cambridge University Press at a not crazy but not cheap 19 pounds, it is packaged like a standard academic work, with a plain black and white photo on the cover and some admiring quotes from fellow academics on the back. It still feels like the old style of academic publishing: based on the assumption that scholarship requires no marketing to those with a professional interest in the contents. The editing, too, feels geared toward an academic audience, and it would have been interesting to see what a more ambitious marketing and editorial strategy could have achieved.

“There are ways of saying things, Mister. Here what matters is not the content of speech; that’s only the shadow of the intention” – Ama Darius

Maybe all ethnographers should at some point think about how they would write their fieldwork as a story, with emotive hooks and narrative arcs and, however messy, a beginning and an end. Not because all ethnography should be this way, but because it might help us crystallize what is “human” in the big literary sense – emotionally compelling – about our work. When I was a graduate student, a senior academic I admired asked me what was most surprising about my fieldwork. I didn’t have an answer, and was mortified. It was on me to have a better response. It’s a poorly-kept secret among anthropologists that ethnographic writing is sometimes very boring, and that is something we need to address because it suggests we are missing something of what makes the lives of the people we work with compelling.

I know that many of my friends in Ethiopia would find Niasans’ feelings about the decline of a great but agonistic age of feasting exquisitely familiar, as they would be horrified at the people’s multiple refusals to come to the aid of sick and dying men and women. I think they would also respect the “glorious penury” that the ancestral ways in Nias result in, where the point, ultimately, is to have status in the eyes of one’s fellows, and have them be obliged to you. They would also recognize the combination of speechcraft and allusive evasion that characterizes male discourse in this glory economy, and sympathize with its transformation into the language of disiplin and demokrasi. These recognitions are the unspoken stuff of ethnography.

It is not a huge surprise how many of the big names of Indonesian studies – Geertz, Becker – have been obsessed with theatre, performance, and narrative. Some societies, especially hierarchical ones, tend to highlight the staged, performative, and ironic dimensions of social life more than others. There is a heady intensity to this approach; it produces heroes and anti-heroes and generally good stories. It makes for emotional intensity and compelling power-games, which in turn makes stories recognizable. Perhaps it reminds us why we care about them in the first place, which is a good question with which to begin.


Clastres, P. 1998. Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians. Trans Paul Auster. Cambridge, MA: Zone Books.

Descola, P. 1998. The Spears of Twilight: Life and Death in the Amazon Jungle. New York, NY: New Press.

Geertz, C. 1973. The Cerebral Savage: On the Works of Claude Lévi-Strauss. In The Interpretation of Cultures. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Lévi-Strauss, C. 1992 [1955]. Tristes Tropiques. London: Penguin Books.

Turnbull, C. 1961. The Forest People. London: Routledge.

Turnbull, C. 1972. The Mountain People. London: Touchstone.

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