Dreams Of The Andes Essay, Research Paper
Dreams of the Andes Realm of the Incas Max Milligan 240pp, HarperCollins Even in the late 16th century, some Spanish commentators condemned the Pizarro-led conquest of Peru for its ruthless destruction of Incan civilisation. Now it is conventional to draw the region’s moral map on such lines, so that the conquistadors are cast in the role of barbarous savages, while all sympathies are reserved for the indigenous Americans and their half-millennium of physical and cultural suffering. This wonderful volume of photo-graphs falls squarely within that tradition. In one of his extended captions, Max Milligan describes the Spanish conquest as “an orgy of theft from beginning to end”. Yet Milligan does acknowledge the creative side of the Spaniards, and the scale of their achievement. Of the European contribution to Cuzco, he writes: “The vibrant city of libraries, museums and decorated churches…monuments to the formidable courage of the soldiers of Spain. This Cuzco invites you to don armour, sit astride a powerful steed, ride out and conquer.” The author is equally original in his refusal to portray contemporary Andeans only in terms of their historical monuments – an attitude that often amounts to little more than a romantic dream for a vanished civilisation. If only by implication, it frequently ignores the modern inheritors of that tradition as an irrelevance or, worse, as a dishevelled third-world embarrassment to the glories of a remote past. Milligan’s photos, however, document the deep continuities between past and present by celebrating the vibrant living customs of the Aymara and Quechua-speaking peoples. Two of the events he records have particular resonance. One centres on the last surviving grass-rope hanging bridge made in the style of the ancient Inca. Until recently, the annual weaving of its replacement was at the heart of a quasi-religious ceremony held on Epiphany in January. A North American documentary film crew, unwilling to suffer the inconvenience and misery of the Andean rainy season, asked the locals to re-enact the event in June. The “traditional festival” has now shifted its date permanently so that tourists can come, take pictures and – most importantly – spend money. Another event Milligan photographed is the Chiaraje, a ritual war fought between two neighbouring villages with slings and home-made maces. The combatants look picturesque in their gorgeously coloured, hand-woven ponchos, and western anthropologists are frequently numbered among the event’s spectators. But this is no mock battle. Broken bones and gushing head wounds are frequent – even among visiting academics, should they get in the way of the action. Milligan also tells us that a French television cameraman was seriously injured in 1999. The first tale perfectly articulates an indigenous Andean capacity to bend and adapt to the unavoidable realities of life, whether that means the horse and steel of Spanish cavalrymen or the mighty dollar of gringo tourists. The second shows how utterly impervious Andean culture can be to outsiders. No matter that they are are highly sympathetic observers – should the white men happen to get in the way of the slingshot, then they are struck down as if they never existed. It is this tradition at the heart of indigenous Peruvian culture – a paradoxical blend of adaptation and impermeability – that Milligan recreates on almost every page. He is an exceptional photographer, with a love for “the purity of texture and form”, and writes: “Were it possible this book would consist of little else.” His style means that a number of images, especially of the Andean landscape, are heavily burdened with shadow. Sometimes this enriches the texture and draws the eye towards details he wants to emphasise. At other times, however, the images just look rather gloomy and underexposed. Another dominant element in Milligan’s photography is a concern to reduce natural features or man-made objects to abstractions. His sequence of photographs of Inca stonework in Cuzco is particularly powerful. The way these massive, randomly shaped blocks of stone have been converted to simple geometric patterns tells us everything about the remarkable quality of Incan engineering and their genius for collective organisation. The geographical territory covered in the book is very much tourist Peru, which centres on the old Inca capital of Cuzco and the ruins at Machu Picchu. Yet having pored over Milligan’s beautiful photographs for a while, one cannot help reflecting on the extraordinary human diversity still surviving in the global village. In one part, he describes Lake Titicaca and one of the completely isolated islands at its centre, called Taquile. Here, the people live as close to the original Incan pattern as possible. They are famous for the exquisite beauty of their traditional weaving. The islanders enjoy a life entirely without modern amenities, or even wheeled vehicles, horses, cows or dogs. All their work is arranged on an entirely communal basis, there is no social hierarchy or crime, and in the schools the children recite a greeting used in the time of the Incan empire: “Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t be lazy.” You wonder what the islanders of Taquile would make of an average day in any western capital.