The Americas 57.2 (2000) 288-289
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This is a lively translation of great book that deserves a wide audience. The work deserves its status as a classic in Argentina; it's about time for its introduction to the English-reading audience. It belongs in any representative collection of Latin American literature in translation. It will also appeal to anyone interested in frontiers, and I predict aficionados of "western" frontier narratives will welcome the translation with surprise and recognition at the many similarities between this account of an expedition of expansion and conquest and those of the North American plains. For Latin Americanists, the work is particularly instructive for understanding a nineteenth-century concept of civilization which implied ultimate military conquest of the unincorporated "Indians," a concept shared by the leadership of the modern nation-states in Latin America, regardless of their liberal or conservative political stances. Despite the distortions of the narrator's interpretive lens, historians will also find a wealth of ethnographic detail that challenge concepts about the nature of Indian-White relations during the nineteenth-century consolidation of the modern state. Perhaps the biggest myth that we are forced to confront is that the conflict was divided along racial lines. Instead we read about a thriving interethnic and inter-racial arena that functioned entirely outside of the reach of the Argentine state, and realize that it was ideologies of racism which were used to justify disenfranchisement of these people.
This narrative is full of descriptions of dramatic ceremonial encounters involving whooping (palms-to-mouth), lance-bearing, horse-bound warriors galloping up to meet the gift-bearing, well-armed and mounted Argentine military diplomatic mission led by Lucio Victorio Mansilla. It contains amusing gaucho stories related around campfires after the day's long ride on horseback. Tracking and trailing secrets are revealed, and smoke signals interpreted. Philosophical digressions into [End Page 288] the nature of man (based on Mansilla's education in the classics) are interrupted by the account of Mansilla's encounter with an old schoolmate, a doctor held captive by the Ranqueles, who Mansilla does not succeed in liberating.
Despite its ethnocentric filter, Mansilla's narrative offers us a fascinating insight into the composition of Ranquel tribe represented by chief Mariano Rosas. The Ranqueles are revealed as one of the dominant tribes in the "interior" (south of a negotiated military frontier), second in importance only to Namuncurá's Araucanians strategically located further south and east around the Salinas Grandes. Mariano Rosas's followers included Aruacanian (Mapuche) warriors and their families, Creole deserters and other criminals and discontents (vagos y malos desentretenidos) who formed a society that sprang up in the interior during the years between the civil wars in the early decades of the century and the final war of subjugation in 1880 that was popularly known as the Conquest of the Desert. Despite Mansilla's amusement at the Ranquel lack of confidence in his friendly intentions and suspicions of his compass and protractor, there is no question that Ranquel suspicions about these instruments of conquest were well-founded.
The translation by Eva Gillies, retired lecturer at the University of London, is exciting and engaging, and all of Mansilla's references to his classical education are carefully referenced. There is somewhat less contextual analysis for readers interested in the intercultural and ethnohistorical references of the work. This reviewer must admit to not having verified the translation chapter by chapter; the few chapters sampled left the reviewer awed at Gilles mastery of nineteenth-century vocabulary specific to the Argentine frontier and horsemanship. At times the selection of English terminology is somewhat jarring. As a frivolous example, the idea of a "lagoon" in the middle of the semi-arid pampas seems unlikely; why not use the more common word "lake," which is less likely to conjure up visions of pirates in the tropical West Indies? That is a small...