This is the post that i wrote for John Caviglia on his blog. We made contact after i read his novel, Arauco. What a pleasure! Here it goes:
First of all, I must say that I feel honored to have been invited to write for this blog. My first encounter with Arauco was in late 2013, as a gift I gave myself for Christmas. I literally devoured the book: the storyline and the writing style got me hooked from the first paragraph. As Ñamku felt the messages from Mapu, I got goose bumps, and I could see images passing through my head as if it were a movie. But my surprise increased when I discovered that John Caviglia was diving into the Mapuche language—Mapudungun—to afford us an even deeper sensation of being immersed in his scenario.
It is often said that it is impossible to understand a culture without knowing their language. As a speaker of Mapudungun, my experience tells me that this is true, at least for this particular language and culture. For Mapuche people, the düngu [ðəŋu] (language, word, voice, idea, issue, matter) plays a central role in defining their cosmology, not only because of the words they use to express their cosmos, but also in the construction of phrases and the way words relate to each other. The way in which John introduces words and phrases in the Mapuche language as the story progresses makes us constantly remember the scenario in which the storyline is taking place.
Over the centuries Mapuche have constantly fought against people who tried to invade them: first against the Inca, who didn’t manage to conquer them; and then against the Spanish conquistadores, who encountered them in 1541. The Mapuche were actually the only South American indigenous people that managed to throw out the conquistadores. As the Spaniards never conquered them, in 1641—after one century of war—the Spanish Crown capitulated, officially recognizing their independence and sovereignty over their territory, in an event called the Parlamento de Quilín. Much later, in 1810, when Chile achieved its independence from the Spanish Crown, the Chilean liberator Bernardo O’Higgins reaffirmed their sovereignty and recognized the Mapuche as a sister nation. It wasn’t until 1861, after Chile won the War of the Pacific against Peru and Bolivia, and its army was mobilized, that the Chilean government decided to attack and conquer the Mapuche. After this genocide the Mapuche people were absorbed by Chile, their lands taken, so that all that remains to them are small territories called “reducciones.” But to this day they fight to protect their lands, culture and language.
Mapudungun is today a minority language that struggles to survive in a land where Spanish has become hegemonic. As a country founded by colonizers, Chile’s modern culture is dominated by a criollo life style. When Caviglia started to write this novel, materials about Mapudungun were scarce, if not impossible to find. Grammar books, dictionaries, or any written Mapudungun were real jewels. Moreover, at that time there wasn’t any standard orthography, which means that every single person wrote Mapudungun haphazardly, as they could. Writers tried to deal with the phonology of Mapudungun (which is very different from that of Spanish) while at the same time attempting to represent it by adopting Spanish orthographic rules—the only language they knew to write. I cannot but admire Caviglia for his work, not only because he introduced Mapudungun in his text, but also because he did it at a time when it seemed impossible. He did such a wonderful job, that his orthography is almost identical to the newborn “alfabeto mapuche unificado” (unified Mapuche alphabet), which is an attempt by professional linguists to standardize this language’s orthography.
The history of written Mapudungun began in 1606, when the first grammar was written by Luis de Valdivia—a Jesuit—with clear evangelistic intentions. As terrible as it might sound, this text represents a cultural revolution, since for the first time it treats the Mapuche as people having a soul, implying that they deserve to be converted to the faith of God instead of being treated like sub-human creatures. And indeed, religious institutions played a central role in alleviating the cruelty of the genocide taking place. During the centuries that followed numerous works were written about Mapudungun. From the early 17th until the early 20th century, there was a rich tradition of Mapudungun grammarians and researchers, always with the intention of religious conversion. However, this did not prevent the Mapuche from preserving their culture until these days. As the brave weychafe (warriors) and kim che (sage people) that they always have been, they have managed to resist everything.
John Caviglia’s book is a true homage to the Mapuche people. This great story will make you feel the storm that was the encounter of two completely different worlds, and the epic quality of this war that lasted for centuries, and still continues. I am sure that this will also motivate people to get closer to Mapuche culture and language, or at least to make them know that they exist. I can only say: Marichi wew, John, amulepe ta mi nütram! (ten times we will win, John, let your story continue!)