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J A C K E T  # 6
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Nathaniel Tarn

Tarn returning from seven hour walk, Pacific Coast-Atitlán Highlands, 1953

Based on a thirty-year span of fieldwork in the Lake Atitlán region of Guatemala, Scandals in the House of Birds is a multi-voiced epic of a sacred crime, and its tangled mythic, religious, and political ramifications. The Maximón, a wooden statue venerated since pre-Columbian times, is stolen from the local villagers, sent to a European museum, and finally returned decades later, largely thanks to the author's intervention. This excerpt from the book consists of the first chapter - it is about three printed pages long.
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Photo: Nathaniel Tarn returning from seven hour walk, Pacific Coast-Atitlán Highlands, 1953.


Chapter One - The Maximón Scandals
We are on Lake Atitlán in the Department of Sololá, Guatemala, Central America. It is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, ringed with hills and three majestic volcanos, home to several Tzutujil and Cakchikel Maya Indian villages. The Maya here speak two of the languages in the Quichean group. Many of the dialects within the languages differ noticeably. Writing in 1952-53, Tarn described a major religious icon of the Tzutujil village of Santiago Atitlán: the Maximón. In the description, the word cofradía refers to a small brotherhood of Indian officials, elected for a year at a time, who keep the images and maintain the rituals of a particular village saint both in the village church and in their own small chapel:

Tarn, 1952-53:
As nearly as one can discover from conflicting evidence, the Maximón is, basically, a flat piece of wood about two and a half feet high and six to eight inches thick. A little jar or enamelled iron cup is strapped to the top end and contains the base of another piece of wood, or possibly gourd, which forms the core of the head. At the bottom end, two jars contain the wooden legs. The whole contraption is kept in a bundle above the roof trellis of cofradía Santa Cruz (the Holy Cross) towards which all who enter cross them selves and under which the largest candles always stand. When dressed for fiestas, the core is wrapped in rags and cornhusks, held together with string and fitted with boots. In this cofradía, there is a dresser or telinel, an official attached to the cofradía: he is an aj'kun, a native priest; the office was permanent in 1950 but is now yearly. The telinel covers the resultant bundle with a minimum of two or three sets of clothes offered by Atitecos and pilgrims from other villages. A doll emerges, some four and a half feet tall, clothed in shirt, belt and pants of Atiteco style plus a Texan size fiftyfive hat, a blue serge jacket and a bib of some thirty silk scarves. A crude wooden mask covers the head core.

Such a puppet had, rather surprisingly, attracted the attention of no less an international periodical than the Latin American Edition of Time Magazine for April 2nd, 1951. It describes some events of 1950 and their repercussion in 1951:

D E V I L I S H   D E I T Y
The raw-boned Tzutujil Indians of mountain-bound Santiago Atitlán (pop. 10,000) have a religion of their own, a mixture of undigested bits of Roman Catholicism and queer survivals of paganism. Their favorite deity is a raffish, four foot idol named Maximón, who smokes cigars, wears four hats and a leer. Smoking is the least of Maximón's vices. With gleeful perversity, the Indians assign to him an uninhibited libido and a rollicking disregard for the Ten Commandments. Last week was Maximón's annual festival, culminating on Good Friday with drunken dances, a caricature of a Passion Play, and special offerings to the idol. Outside the village church, where the villagers also worshipped as sometime Christians, Maximón was installed for the occasion in a tiny chapel. His guards posted by haughty Nicolás Chiviliu, village brujo (witch doctor), swung censers, cranked huge wooden noisemakers. They were guarding Maximón from the priest. Most years the Indians have invited a Roman Catholic cleric to help during Holy Week in their mixed pagan-Christian ceremonies. Last year, they asked Dominican Padre Godofredo Recinos on the other side of Lake Atitlán. He was shocked by Maximón. When he tried to set the idol afire, the guards chased him away. Then he fired three shots at Maximón. He missed. Next morning, Good Friday, he delivered an ultimatum: 'Either that pagan idol goes, or I do.'
      'Have a good trip,' said Nicolás. Six weeks later, Padre Recinos came back across the lake with his father superior in a motor launch. Robes aflutter, the priests dashed into the village. They chopped Maximón's wooden head from his straw body with a machete and sped away. The Indians were enraged.
the old Maximómon

The old mask of Maximón or Mam stolen in 1950, asleep in a Museum Depository for 30 years, returned to Atitlán, 1979. Photo copyright © Nathaniel Tarn, 1979, 1998.


      They made a new head, but it was a poor substitute for the original. When Padre Recinos turned up in Santiago Atitlán last week uninvited, he was met with silence and sullen stares. The padre hopefully offered to say Good Friday Mass without payment if someone would offer him food and lodging. He was answered with cold silence.
      Turning to go, the padre shook his fist at leering Maximón. 'That,' he cried, 'is the work of the devil.'
      'Padre,' said brujo Nicolás, 'we are sons of the devil.'


Tarn, whom Nicolás considers as his apprentice, reads this to Nicolás as soon as he sees it. Nicolás is a tall, broad, leonine, immensely handsome man with a regal bearing. Nicolás loves it. He doesn't even bridle at the word brujo, although normally he gets furious at any confusion between aj'kun (shaman, prayer maker, native priest) and aj'itz (witch, sorcerer, evil magician). No doubt he accepts brujo as the normal foreigner's usage.
      "Well, I never said that we were sons of the devil! Can you imagine me saying that? But he did have a pistol, that's true. Only thing is: the cofrades rushed him before he could fire. One bullet fell on the ground and we now have it at the bottom of the Mam's clothes box!"
      Nicolás does not use the name "Maximón." He would accept "the Mam" or "Don Pedro" or "the Old Guy." But not "Maximón."


Tarn and friends
From left to right: the shaman Nicolás Civiliu, a friend Martin Prechtel, and Nathaniel Tarn
photograph copyright © Janet Rodney, 1979
NATHANIEL TARN, born in Paris, France, was educated at Cambridge University; the École des Hautes Études, Paris; the University of Chicago; the London School of Economics and the London School of Oriental & African Studies. He is a poet, translator, editor, critic and anthropologist. He has published some twenty-five books of poetry; many volumes of translation, among which three best-selling collections of Pablo Neruda's, and Views from the Weaving Mountain, a volume of thirty years' essays in literary and cultural criticism. (You can read an essay from that book here.) In an interval between academic careers, he was General Editor of Cape Editions & Founding Editor of Cape Goliard Press. As an anthropologist, he is an expert in the Highland Maya area and South East Asia and has also worked in the Himalayan Region, China, Japan, Cuba and Alaska. Tarn has read his work and lectured world-wide. His poetry has been translated into some two dozen major languages. He has taught, inter alia, at the Universities of London, Princeton, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Jilin (P.R.China). Tarn retired as Professor Emeritus of Modern Poetry, Comparative Literature and Anthropology, Rutgers University, in 1985, and for the last four years has been immersed in Russian culture and affairs with frequent trips to Russia. He lives North of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  
Scandals in the House of Birds
ISBN 1-56886-044-7
Marsilio Publishers, 853 Broadway, Suite 604, New York, NY 10003, USA, 1997
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