From Alfred Döblin’s Amazonas Trilogy, vol. 1: Journey to the Land without Death

Departure of the Women People

The old woman woke up to the udu’s call in the forest: tru tru, udu udu. She went from hut to hut. Women came out, thirty women and grown girls. The old woman stayed by the clan house. They went down from the mound into the forest in single file, one behind the other, leaving plenty of space between them. The forest began to lighten, an early mist was rising. From its tree the udu kept calling: tru tru, udu udu. The path made a bend, a rock was called “grass.” Then they came to the little watercourse. They had eaten nothing, drunk nothing, were unpainted, without ornament. They wore only hipstring and loincloth. It was damp underfoot, dew lay. But on their shoulders they wore no matting, so as not to burden their menfolk away on the warpath. They tried not to shiver, so that their men would not tremble. The vegetation along the trickling water separated them, nobody spoke. They had walked slowly, so as not to tire their men. They stood in dark water among the reeds.

Why did they not speak, why did they not call, why creep so furtively out of the village? Each held in her hand a strip of silvery bast. None looked at the others, they crouched low in the reeds. And each whispered into her little strip of bast, some closed their eyes, some smiled, each spoke a name, the name of a man she’d had something with apart from husband or favourite. She tied a knot around her infidelity, locked it up inside. She crumpled the bast in her hand, parted the reeds in front of her. From thirty hands the knots flew into the little river. Now it was done, they had made their men easier. Silently they walked back through the reeds, around the rock, one behind the other.

The village was called Toadhole. As the sun rose higher, women roasted manioc outside the huts and the clan house, others toiled in the gardens, some climbed down to the river with nets. When the old woman at the great fireplace in front of the maloca, the clan house, looked around for a young woman who had been grating meal into a pot with water, she was gone, and the children said she had run into the house. The old woman found her behind the house, where the forest began. She vomited there and ran away. The old woman caught her: “Why are you hiding?” Because the young woman was sick, a medicine man who had stayed behind in the village was summoned. She was taken to a little hut, somewhat secluded. They all talked about the sick woman: she was newly married. Next day she was hot. The sorcerer took his rattle and strutted around her. In the village they talked about the sick woman, dared not say what they thought. When another woman and a child fell ill before evening, there was great fear. Next morning the medicine man fetched an even older sorcerer from the nearest village. They told everyone to rub ochre on their bodies for protection, then they began to investigate who in the village had done something bad. They pointed to two old women, but no one in the village believed it. Still none dared say what they feared.

During the third night a loud wailing arose. Shrieks came from the clan house, they came running from the huts with blazing torches. A woman in the clan house had dreamed that her man had returned, there was a spear in his chest, the spear wasn’t in deep, he couldn’t pull it out, he asked for a drink. As the woman whimpered, another woke up in her hammock. They heard knocking on the wall. Now they knew their men were lying out there unburied and had come to fetch their things. They had been gone five time ten suns. Wailing spread through the village. Parrots flew up from roofs and squawked. In the grey dawn a boat with four women came from nearby, at once turned back in fear, their men too were away at war, five times ten suns, and had sent no sign. They drummed the news into the surrounding country.

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The river by the village was called Yari-yari. Its waters emptied into the Rio Negro, which carried them past hills, sandy plains, forests to the mighty Amazon. Mists swathed hill, forest and plain.

Women squatted beneath mat awnings. The seeds of the urucu bush were red and yellow, they grated them with palm oil, colour leached from the seeds, they scraped it from their hands into the bowl. They fetched cooking pots from the fireplace, scraped soot into the bowl. All the while they talked. A woman suckled her child, an older woman spurted milk from her breast into the mouth of a protesting baby monkey, another oiled her baby’s hair. The women said: “Why don’t the men come back. We’ve done nothing to drive them away. We must dance to bring them back.” The nursing mother let tears trickle down her little face. They slapped her: “Why are you crying? Didn’t we wail enough in the night? We’ll upset the men.” So the woman laughed.

Beside the water lay a boat that the men had left half finished. It rested on two wooden runners. They fetched palm leaves, in the afternoon burnt it away from the inside, fetched palm leaves, burnt it from the outside. They did this so that their men could travel. In the evening a thunderstorm broke. The old women kept the manioc mash until everyone was back from fishing, grilled the fish. Then there was loud laughter, children stayed by the fire in front of the clan house, young women and grown girls disappeared into the huts. They painted themselves a beautiful black with soot and red with urucu, they oiled their hair, the almond eyes of the young ones glinted with pleasure, they hung necklaces of black seeds around their necks, tied threads of red cotton on arm and calf. Then one of them leapt from her hut, she was the first, she swung the dance-rattle and whooped, she wore a net shawl over her shoulders, a little red parrot sat on her head. The others ran out, they looked beautiful and happy. They formed a line one behind the other, arms crossed at the breast, swayed left, swayed right, they sang a dancing song, filed past the clan house. The children and old women stood up.

Two lines in the dirt–it was a river, the young women leapt along the bank, they wanted to cross, they were the men. One rowed on the river, his back covered in palm leaves–the river spirit. They bowed down to him, he let them cross. They greeted the old women and the others. Then they faced each other, two by two, heads lowered, hands covering their eyes, man and wife, and wept greetings.

The dance ended, darkness fell. They laughed and ate, radiant in the firelight.

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Gallinules hooted in the forest, cicadas chirped, monkey-cries fell silent, toads set up their croaking. It was night, starlight hung over forest, plain, rivers.

In the dark an arrow flew close to the fire. It planted itself quivering in the dirt. Nothing moved in the village. Two longboats lay in the reeds, people crept crouching up the slope, they croaked like toads, waited for daybreak. Now the stars went out one by one. They ran, uttered warcries like the raging of howler monkeys. As women and children screamed and tried to flee, the raiders set fire to the clan house. By the light of the flames they separated old women from the younger and the children. They threw spears after the old women. The young women and children were herded together.

The village burned, drums sounded from the next village, the fire had been seen. The raiders, Maku, painted black with red stripes from ear to ear, armed with clubs, spears, bows and arrows, beat their prizes, drove them down to the boats. Into the boats climbed all the young women and girls, still in yesterday’s festive markings. The boat they had burned out for their men came with them. The village up above smoked. They were carried away into the dripping forest.

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Among the Duck people, not far off on the Vaupes river, the headman’s wife was Toeza. It was a large village close by the water. In this village, women were strong. They did not yearn for their men. Some women could throw spears and shoot arrows. But women were excluded from counsel and were never taken on campaign. The men left them just one old boat for fishing. But the women knew how to make dugouts, they paddled across the water to islands and lakes. Toeza wore many threads at her throat, on arms and legs. Her husband had two other wives, she was dominant. She went hunting in the forest. By the fire she dismembered the deer she had killed, skewered pieces to grill, and said: “We catch what we can. We eat what we like. The work is hard, but easier than when the men are here. We can rest whenever we want. And the children thrive too.” An older woman came, took her child from the hip-sling and placed it near the fire, saying: “We bend our backs in the gardens. No man ever helps. When we’re young it’s easy. But us old ones.” The children at the fire giggled and pointed. Everyone ate. The old woman told a story:

“A young girl married a rich man. Everyone congratulated her and brought presents. Her parents pretended to weep. After the feast she followed him across the little lake. He set her to work in the fields, cutting and weeding. When she finished she had to prepare mash, bake flatbread. There was no firewood. He sent her into the forest. It was the rainy season, she didn’t find much, the river had carried it all away. The day was ending, she didn’t have enough. Back home her husband scolded her.

“Next morning she rose, had to go deep into the forest, the howlers pitied her, broke kindling. She went home, her husband was still not satisfied, she’d taken so long. Next day she went even earlier into the forest, the monkeys sat among cocoa-pods, threw some down to her, she took refreshment, gathered firewood, the monkeys helped. Then she went home, her husband was still angry, she was out of breath, it displeased him. And when the firewood was used up and she had to go back into the forest she wept: ‘Oh why did I marry a rich man, when all he does is set me to work? When I rest I’m pretty, but then I must go into the forest. When I bring firewood I’m ugly, he doesn’t look at me.’

“She ran around the lake to her mother. ‘Why did you marry me to a rich man, when all he ever does is force me to work? Better you had given me to a howler monkey. They threw cocoa-pods down and broke twigs for me.’ The mother was afraid her daughter would go to the howler monkeys.

“The girl had a brother. The mother summoned him. He broke one of the Sun’s legs. So the Sun moved slower. The day lasted longer. The young woman managed to gather enough wood, her husband was satisfied.”

The women ate, glanced at the sun, looked at one another, said nothing. One told the old woman: “Eat now. What’s all this about your mother? You’re no longer young yourself.”

Where the rapids flow between rocky banks, there the black jaguar has his cave. Walyarina is his name. He, they say, is the source of the water’s dull roaring. Nearby was the women’s bathing place. Toeza cried out: “The men are away. Why did they leave with bow and arrow, shield and blowpipe and with the best canoes? They told nobody. They think our little sons are cleverer than us. What will they do? Catch men and women to slave for them. They attack men in the forest and steal their women and children. They will grow richer and we shall toil harder than ever. Better for us to take up spears and confront them when they come home.” The women splashed around in the water. Toeza uprooted a lily and threw it towards the waterfall: “The black jaguar, my bridegroom, lives there.”

With ten young women she made herself up, took weapons, went hunting again. She led them from the north to the waterfall where the forest growth was stunted. They stood before the jaguar’s cave above the rapids, the others ran into the trees when the black jaguar strolled out. He blew yellow foam. Toeza laid her weapons on the rock and crouched beside the beast; it slavered and stroked its whiskers and purred. Slowly she settled beside him. Then he stretched and looked straight ahead. Later Toeza returned with her weapons. The women swore to keep the secret. Toeza confided to them: “Walyarina, the black jaguar, is my lover. Walyarina is our watchword.” Every day they went to the waterfall, the women ate, hunted in the forest, and waited for Toeza to emerge from the jaguar’s cave.

The men returned from war, not all of them, they were unhappy. They brought no spoils. For three days they kept to the men’s lodge. They ordered the women to fish, tend the gardens, and prepare meals for them. But Toeza continued to hunt, she had hidden spears, bows and arrows in the forest. When the chief appeared in his hut the other two wives said: “Toeza’s in the forest.” The chief said nothing. He sent a young man out. He reported: “They’re sitting by the waterfall, guzzling.” Next day the youth said: “They summon the black jaguar, Walyarina.”

The chief waited for dusk, when all the women were back in the village. He watched Toeza to see if she ate, and when she ate nothing asked her why not. She said she had eaten in the forest. “And cooked as well?” She said: “Yes.” And as he lay in his hammock in the gloom he called her, but she would not come, he dragged her by the hair and was stronger than her, she pressed her hands to her face and wept.

But very early, while everyone slept, the chief slipped into the forest with ten men, upriver to the falls. He had told Toeza he would go hunting, she was to gather cassava roots for bread. At the waterfall the men dropped to the ground, the youth called out “Walyarina” just as he had heard. The black jaguar was sleeping, it took many calls before he came out of the cave, looked around, and when the youth again called “Walyarina” he raised his head and exposed his chest. The chief’s spear caught him in the throat, the jaguar tumbled into the falls, they shot arrows after him and hauled him from the water. They loaded him onto branches and dragged him to the village, his head dangled and dripped blood and foam.

At noon the women filed back and saw him lying there. The chief said: “We’ll have a hunting feast, bake lots of bread and prepare strong beer.” Toeza ate with him, she could not speak for grief. The women followed her into the forest. “The men have dealt us a cruel injury. They have killed Walyarina. We must have revenge, today, before they can attack us in the night.” The men hunted all afternoon, brought back game and fowl, the women baked and roasted. Then the men demanded pavari beer to drink. Humbly each wife presented a gourd to her man. They had put cassava poison in the beer. The men drank. And with the poison in their bellies they grew pale and anxious, they looked at one another, looked at the mat, looked up at the sky, looked at the women. The women asked: “Do you need something?” They groaned: “What did you put in the beer?” They called for the medicine man. His head too was slumped on his chest. The women hastened to empty the gourds behind the house. The men turned over on their mats, twitched and died.

Toeza danced with her women before the clan house. “The men are gone. Don’t grieve. No one shall ever beat us again.” They ran into the huts and brought out weapons. They loaded up with mats, cooking gear, food and trekked into the forest, children alongside and at the hip. “Walyarina” was their war-cry. They called themselves the Women People. When they came to a village they fought the men and called the women to their side. They let them follow with their children.

When the neighbouring village drummed and received no reply from the village of the dead, boats came across. Vultures were feeding on the corpses. After funeral ceremonies they set off in pursuit of the women. These concealed themselves in a dense thicket. The men outnumbered the women. They surrounded the thicket and threw spears. The women responded. Some women fell, some men fell. The men discussed firing the thicket.

But they had seen so many corpses in the village, their friends who had returned with them from the warpath. Now more men were lying here, and women over there. They said: “What good to us are women who kill their men? If they want to go into the forest, let them.”

So the Women People withdrew. They wandered through the forest, kept this side of the Yapura, came to the mighty river of the Amazons. They were subject to no man. And men feared them. From the men they stole even the black monkey pelt of the great spirit Yurupari and his voice, the trumpet.

They took men as consorts, tolerated their presence only as outsiders and slaves.

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Thus, in two places, ended that campaign conducted so stealthily along the trails, which had lasted five times ten suns.

And it was in truth a stealthy campaign, and the men who came together to pursue it had every reason to keep at a distance any of whom they were unsure. For it was the first attempt, later so often undertaken, to find the Land without Death.

In the forests, drums pounded endlessly.

There was a big drum called the Man, deep-toned, and a smaller called the Woman. They throbbed with beats short and long, deep- and high-toned, across lakes small and large, over swamps, rivers and streams, through forest and savannah. The drums lamented: “Take care! Great danger. None shall survive. Towards sunset the Great Spirit who holds up the earth made the mountains tremble. Wild beasts have attacked people. Whole tribes are perishing. Look at the sky: the Dog Star is approaching the moon. He will devour it.”

Thus the two drums lamented through the endless dark forest. And the dusky people ran out, paddled out onto lakes. There in the sky stood the evil star Yaouare, Jaguar, close to the moon already. And in the villages they gathered, waved sticks, yelled, beat on pots, drummed and cried to heaven: “O great father, o my great father, are you well? Are you well? O great father, o my great father, are you well? Are you well?”

Envoys came to chiefs, they were to assemble their warriors swiftly and in secret. And one day, without naming their goal, the men slipped away from the villages, men of the Tariana, Opaina, Carijona, Incuna, from the Vaupes river, Yapura and Caqueta. The call to arms ran thus: “Towards sunrise lies the Land without Death. There is a tree that provides all kinds of fruit, it is the father of all beasts and people. If you climb the tree it draws its branches together and lifts them up and anyone sitting there is borne higher and higher, above the mountain peaks, up into the sky. And there the ancestors dwell, the great spirits.” The men were away a long time on their quest for the Land without Death, five times ten suns.

Calm settled again over the people of the forests. The mound of Toadhole with its burned huts remained deserted. No one visited the mound where Toeza and the women had killed the men. Everyone avoided looking at the sky, so that the stars would not notice them. Sometimes in the forest, hunting for honey, a man would peer between branches to see if perhaps a strange bird would show itself, from that distant land they had sought in vain. And women sang to their children: “Far away towards the sunrise is a huge water. In it there’s a land where people live forever and never grow old. No one does bad things. In this land a tree grows that bears fruit of all kinds, the father of beasts and people. No one has to work.”

Bios

Alfred Döblin

Alfred Döblin (1878-1957) was a prolific writer whose œuvre spans more than half a century and a wide variety of literary movements and styles. One of the most important figures of German literary modernism, he is much less known to the reading public than his contemporaries Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, or Franz Kafka. English readers know him, if at all, for only one work: his big city novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). His complete works include a dozen epic novels ranging from 18th-century China (The Three Leaps of Wang Lun, 1915) to the distant future (Berge Meere und Giganten (“Mountains Oceans Giants”), 1924) to the European conquest of South America (Amazonas, 1938). He also wrote several dramas, radio plays, and screenplays; a travelogue; philosophical treatises; and many essays on politics, religion, art, and society. Döblin was in exile from the Nazis between 1933 and 1945–first in France, from which he had to flee in 1940, and then in the USA.

His writing is characterized by an innovative use of montage and perspectival play, as well as what he dubbed in 1913 a “fantasy of fact” (Tatsachenphantasie), an interdisciplinary poetics that draws on modern discourses ranging from the psychiatric to the anthropological to the theological, in order to “register and articulate sensory experience and to open up [his] prose to new areas of knowledge.” In a 1967 essay, Günter Grass declared: “Without the Futurist elements of Döblin’s work from Wang Lun to Berlin Alexanderplatz, my prose is inconceivable.” Döblin was also an influence on writers such as W. G. Sebald and Bertolt Brecht; as Brecht wrote in 1943, “I learned more about the essence of the epic from Döblin than from anyone else. His epic writing and even his theory about the epic strongly influenced my own dramatic art.”

A new translation of Berlin Alexanderplatz by Michael Hofmann was published in the spring of 2018 by New York Review Books and Penguin UK.

Chris Godwin

Chris Godwin’s translation of Döblin’s first great epic novel, The Three Leaps of Wang Lun, was reissued in 2015 by New York Review Books. Since retiring in 2012, Godwin has translated four more Döblin epics (Wallenstein, Mountains Oceans Giants, the verse epic Manas, and the Amazonas Trilogy), as well as several essays. He has also adapted Manas as an audio play. Since Anglophone publishers shy away from these works on the grounds that they are "unknown," Godwin has set up a website to make Döblin’s other works available in English, along with introductions, information about Döblin’s life, career and art, and critical commentaries: https://beyond-alexanderplatz.com.

Copyright (c) S Fischer Verlag, 1937. English translation copyright (c) Chris Godwin, 2018.