ON NEIGHBOURING / :licensed premises / traducción de Kevin Nolan


:licensed premises

translated by Kevin Nolan

In the hamlet of K'ulta (the k pronounced short, like the tender swish of a guillotine through the furrow of the tongue), the differences between reading and writing, literature and orality, between a book and a drunken binge become, without ever completely disappearing – unstable: even, at times, unmanageable. This is what one learns by following the path (not the guillotines) – of an argument by the American anthropologist Thomas Abercrombie in a fine essay, 'Memory paths in a colonised cosmos – a poetics of drinking and historical memory' in the anthology Borrachera y Memoria, Thierry Saignes (ed), hisbol/IFEA, La Paz 1993 – a book in itself quite out of its time and truly invigorating.

K'ulta is a hamlet in the Bolivian province of Oruro where the dominant spoken language is Aymara – to the linguist, an 'agglutinate' tongue. Abercrombie spent a couple of years in K'ulta and doesn't merely agree with the claim that drinking is practised there 'not in order to forget but to remember' but goes on to elevate the drinking bouts of the K'ultans to the status of an "ethnopoetics", ('a kind of poetic device intended to construct a social body' (sic)). Drunkenness, then, perhaps most of all in its extremest form (the act of drinking oneself to death) can be read because it is written, as a poem. Poems written with ch'allas, sentence-chains of ch'allas citing other ch'allas, strophes or paragraphs – 'memory paths' or 'drinking paths' (uman t"akinaka). The dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy doesn't define this sense of the term ch'alla, even though its use, is common amongst the Hispanophones of the Andean area; it derives from 'ch'alland: 'to sprinkle, asperge' (Bertonio, 1612). Thus: to sprinkle a table (mesa in Castillian, misa in aymaran where the vowel-phoneme E doesn' t exist), or: a kind of altar or simple andean fabric, or: to water the ground or earth as in a sacrifice to the Pachamama to the gods of the mountain. Finally: to DRINK. Not that the k'ultans drink or get drunk only on saints' days, funerals, for rites of passage and other more or less ritual occasions. It's just that almost only at those times does the ingesting of pure (97%) or diluted alcohol and/or of chicha reach such heights that some present truly obliterate themselves, with prolonged loss of consciousness, etc.

In K'ulta, as in much of the rural andean world, the ch'alla needs at least three 'actors' physically present and at least one absent figure, male or female. These are: the PASANTE who provides the alcohol; the COPERO (brewmaster – most often a yatiri or aymaran 'shaman') who receives the drink from the pasant and who while declaiming the appropriate invocation hands it to the master or mistress of the house. S / he becomes in turn the OFERTANTE. And there needs to be a FOURTH FIGURE, male or female, to whom the misa is dedicated (to translate Achachila as ancestor or spirit and Pachamama as 'Earth Mother world be a real error). The sequences of ch'allas then become veritable scenarios or stages, which rehearse or recall a series of topoi or tutelary presences, from the nearest and most familiar to the most alien and undomesticable, and by this means seek to influence the will of one or, several deities, invoked according to preference.

Abercrombie – (here a kind of Dupin figure: cf. Baudelaire's translation of The Purloined Letter. 'godnness, godness' (sic)) made the most of some real luck when observing down the course of a k'ulteno "ethnopoem". Thanks to his relationship with a copero whose 'good friend' he became and who permitted him to 'record a part of the ch'alla session, and also ensured that his glass stayed only half-full' (the shortest session needs at least 40 ch'allas). Luck, the YANANI SURTI (yanani – couple or twins, duality, complementarity or antagonism, two that go together) play an (uncharacterised) role, crucial to the ch'alla. More and less than an offering the archvaluence of LUCK – most usually recalled and hailed at the end of the k'ultan text, opens it to the incalculable and the uncontrollable, that which is nonnegotiable in the economy of sacrifice and, most dangerously, (to summarise by citation) 'for some during this celebration luck is not with them, and it matters little how they behave'. From the deafness of chance (surti), then comes the chance to interrupt (to capitate) the domestic economy (of the sign), in such a way that a door is opened towards a non-ethnicity or radical non-familiarity (more or less impossible?) within the aforesaid (poem). This discontinuity, which neither the anthropologist and the eventual "ethnopoet" never really quite perceives, does not cancel or obscure all subsequent outcomes: ethnic, lingual, sexual, cultural, socio-cultural (etc): on the contrary, it presupposes them. As for the 'total' form of inebriation – falling down dead drunk, Abercrombie explains this, economically, as follows: given that the ch'alla and other forms of depense gratuite are intended to gain the bounty of one or more tutelary figures, the pasante must offer alcohol or chicha in abundance (the law for all reciprocity, andean or not) so that the ofertante may never have the slightest doubt as to the GEN(D)EROSITY on the part of any (occasional) pasante.

from the author's introduction to
translated by Kevin Nolan