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Journal of World History 12.1 (2001) 210-212

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Book Review

Cannibals: The Discovery and Representation of the Cannibal from Columbus to Jules Verne

Cannibals: The Discovery and Representation of the Cannibal from Columbus to Jules Verne. By FRANK LESTRINGANT. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Pp. vi + 247. $38.00 (cloth).

At the moment, "Books in Print" lists forty-six titles including the word "cannibal." We might justifiably ask, why this rush of books deploying the sign of the cannibal at the beginning of the millennium? In Cannibals: The Discovery and Representation of the Cannibal from Columbus to Jules Verne, Frank Lestringant asserts that the debate about cannibalism commences as colonialism begins to "devour the living." It continues as postcolonialism commences as colonialism attempts to devour history as we learned it. An invaluable contribution to the growing body of race theory, Lestringant's book is a fundamental work, providing a model for future research into the ideology of race. Despite Cannibals's fascinating evidence, however, Lestringant stops short of connecting the parts into a theoretical whole. The author's erudition sometimes leads to graceful insight, sometimes to chain upon chain of dense reference, confusing an already difficult and disturbing subject.

Lestringant begins the first chapter with a discussion of the etymology of "cannibal." Like "race" and "savage," the sign of the "cannibal" is rooted in the conquest of the Americas and cannot be disconnected from a history bound up in misunderstanding, fantasy, fear, and cruelty. In 1492, "Columbus discovers the Cannibal" when the Arawak of Cuba describe a people to the east. He is told these caniba (a corruption of cariba, the name the Caribbean Indians of the Lesser [End Page 210] Antilles gave to themselves) are ferocious and barbaric. Columbus never visits the Cariba, but is quick to connect the Arawak belief with ancient Western myths of monoculi and cynocephali. The Western myths had been transmitted in a complicated chain from Homer to St. Augustine to Isidore de Seville. These fantasies located all manner of monsters beyond the civilized borders of the "known" world (see Ivan Hannaford's Race: The History of an Idea in the West for a detailed review of this transmission). Columbus played on canis-caniba, eliding the Arawak caniba into the Latin canis. Already a portmanteau word, the "discoverer" creates an apocope out of caniba by suggesting these feared beings were Kublai Khan's minions, warriors of great civilizations that Columbus believed he was about to reach on the western coast of Asia. The term thus enters "the heart of a complex semantic nexus."

Seventeen illustrations, most from the 1500s, help the reader enter the phantasmagoria of the European mind after the discovery of a "New World." A 1527 Strasbourg woodcut depicts dog-headed cannibals leading a corpse-burdened American llama through their butchering festival. This work "belongs among the very earliest representations of the American savage," and via it Homer's depiction of dog-headed Saracens visually enters the sign of the cannibal. A 1575 pair of illustrations depict "The friendly anthropophagus" and "The unfriendly cannibal." The latter represents a humanoid figure with sharp horns growing out of his cheeks and chin.

Chapter 6 chronicles the experiences of Jean de Lery in Brazil as recounted in his own history of the voyage. Lery's allegorization of cannibalism emphasized the relation of cannibalism to Christian ritual:

Adept at rhetorical readings of the Bible: in the language of the time, he was a 'tropist,' a lover of tropes, who understood the process by which meaning is transferred from the thing signified--the body, the blood--to the thing signifying--the bread and the wine.

In the end, Lery manages to use tropism to attack Catholicism. They are the victims of illusion, and therefore, idolaters. Later, he connects usury to anthropophagy, and without mentioning Jews, manages to conjure the anti-Semitic cliché Shakespeare reiterates in Shylock, a usurer who demands a pound of flesh. Thus, "cannibalism represents something other than itself. It is a moveable sign, a signifier which...