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Tristes Tropiques Paperback – August 1, 1992

4.4 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews

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"I hate travelling and explorers," famously declared Claude Lévi-Strauss, but how fortunate for readers that he should overcome his loathing to write about his experiences among the indigenous peoples of the Brazilian interior, including the Caduveo, Bororo, and Nambikwara tribes. Those who know Lévi-Strauss and Tristes Tropiques by reputation only will be pleasantly surprised by the intimate tone that colors even its most precise anthropological sections, as well as the autobiographical passages at the beginning, in which the author recounts how he fell into his career and how, shortly after the Nazis occupied Paris, he was forced to flee to America in a grueling sea voyage. Twenty-five black-and-white photographs of tribespeople, as well as numerous line drawings, accompany the text.

Language Notes

Text: English (translation)
Original Language: French

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; Reprint edition (August 1, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140165622
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140165623
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #153,582 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Tristes Tropiques, surely one of the great books of the twentieth century, is Levi-Strauss at his intoxicating, idea-overloaded best and an elegy for a world that colonialism and then globalisation have doen their rational best to annihilate.

Levi-Strauss, like most thinkers who come up with new ways of describing the world-- those who Richard Rorty calls "inventors of philosophical vocabularies"-- has of course been mis-read and his ideas mis-applied, as we see with the much-hyped "creation" and then "demise" of "structural anthropology." The real pleasure of this book, which mixes fascinating accounts of Levi-Strauss' travels in Brazil in the '30s with autobiography, and adds chapters on the Maya and ancient Hindu (Indian) civilisations, is in its sheer mass of artfully arranged detail and its endless, provocative play of ideas.

Levi-Strauss stays conversational, descriptive and straightforward, avoiding academic jargon and obscure references. He assumes you know the basics about people like Freud, Marx, Darwin and the Buddha, and then shows you a trip through largely non-industrial societies which unfolds from anthropological description into deep philosophical speculation on the meaning of society and life.

In Brazil, Levi-Strauss watches an illiterate but canny chieftain use his anthropological fieldnotes to intimidate his illiterate tribesmen subordinates, and speculates on the parallel origins of writing and slavery. In Matto Grosso, he meets a butcher fascinated with elephants, since "he could not imagine so much meat in one place." On the banks of the Amazon, a non-industrial tribe is dying, hypnotically lost in the symbolic intricacies of an ancient social system that makes its citizens inbreed.
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This "collage" of material, as Lévi-Strauss himself called this work, consists, essentially, of three separate sections: 1.) The beginning of the work which brims with philosophical meditations on the current state of post-war Europe - The book was penned in 1950. - amidst various and sundry other subjects combined with splendid, lyrically descriptive passages. 2.) An account of his fieldwork in Brazil. 3.) A rather odd, and sometimes very "triste" indeed personal reflection upon what the point of being an anthropologist is at all. The second part, whilst it comprises the greater part of the work, is of the least intrinsic interest unique to Lévi-Strauss. One could pick up a random copy of National Geographic and read much the same sort of thing. That being so, I'll concern myself with the two sections - the first and last - which raise the book above the common lot of travelogue, social commentary and random meditation.

The first section is primarily, I should say, an elaboration of Lévi-Strauss's observation in the first pages that, "Mankind has opted for monoculture." In many ways, it reminds one of the wistful lamentations of Gregor Von Rezzori, in its subject matter as well as in its stylism. It is a curious mixture of autobiography and a richly worded indictment of Western society as a whole which has the consistency, unusual amongst French writers, of not sparing any amour-propre for France as an exception. The entire landscape comes alive as if in agonised death-throes, as in the following passage:

"Towards evening, there was a thunderstorm and the water glistened in the distance like a beast's underbelly. At the same time, the moon was hidden by ragged patches of cloud, which the wind blew into zigzags, crosses and triangles.
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By Buce on December 29, 2003
Format: Paperback
One way to gauge who's in among fashionable academics is to read the catalog for the "Writers and Readers' Documentary Comic Book" series. Sartre has an entry, and so does Derrida, and Lacan. Thirty years ago, you would have expected to find an entry in this index for Claude Levi-Strauss. No more. Translations of his principal works appear to persist in print, but the sales numbers are look low, and he seems almost to have disappeared from the trendy book reviews and such. This is perhaps a matter for at least idle curiosity: Levi-Strauss is surely no more abstruse than his magisterial contemporaries - but no less so; one is perfectly willing to be relieved the obligation of ever picking him up again.
With one exception. In style and temperament, Tristes Tropiques is so different from almost everything else Levi-Strauss wrote that it is hard to believe it is written by the same man. Oh, the primitive tribes are there, and a brief personal intellectual history, that offers a bow to Freud, and Bergeson, and Saussure. In my own copy, which I first read about 1980, I even have a pencilled notation "structuralism" - this at page 375 (Pocket Books edition, 1977). But there is almost none of the portentous vacuity that you had to cope with in the so-called "serious" works.
What you get instead is Levi Strauss the raconteur, full of travelers' tales. He dines on roasted parrot, flamed with whisky. The termites make the earth rumble. Virgins are made to spit in pots of corn, to provoke fermentation - but "as the delicious drink, at once nutritious and refreshing, was consumed that very evening, the process of fermentation was not very advanced.
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