Some stories are, seemingly, impossible to tell. It must be at least ten years since I took a trip through California, and since then I’ve been trying to write, without the least success, the story of a particular grand finale: it’s the story of Ishi, a Yahi Indian who was discovered in his aboriginal condition in the remote ranching town of Oroville in August 1910.
I’d always wanted to take a trip that would begin in Cabo San Lucas, the southernmost point of the Californias, and wind up in whatever was its northernmost city, which turned out to be Oroville. On that trip, as I imagined it, my ex-wife and I would drive from south to north as if navigating some beat poet’s dream, and we would see amazing things, stop in impossibly sinister places, and talk to some free-spirited—and frankly bizarre—characters.
Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out that way. First, our trip by car through most of California began at the halfway mark—at the Los Angeles airport. Second, we weren’t cruising in a black Cadillac loaded with a stash of drugs, each more powerful than the last—instead we were driving an especially hellish minivan, in the not ungrateful, and hardly unbearable, company of my wife’s two grandmothers.
Although the diary of our trip doesn’t offer much in the way of literary fodder, it had its interesting moments, for example when we showed the grandmothers how to nullify some spicy chili peppers at a Chinese restaurant by dipping the tips in salt, or when one of them read a book of Ferlinghetti’s poems that I’d brought along to feel like a true beat, and said that she liked them. We also saw a photo exhibit about Ishi at the University Museum at Cal Berkeley.
The story of the last Indian in the United States living in a pure, untainted condition shouldn’t be a difficult one to tell, nor would it seem to conceal any unavoidable pitfalls for anyone ardently devoted to relating certain things while meaning others. But there’s something in the tale—or inside me—that makes it elusive: I’ve tried the pastiche technique, direct narration, diary entries, epistolary form, even the dreaded stream of consciousness, but the whole thing keeps slipping through my fingers like a fistful of marbles.
The facts are simple and transparent: early one morning, a group of workers found a man collapsed on the doorstep of a slaughterhouse, dying from starvation and exhaustion. They carried him inside the building and gave him water. Then they noticed that he was a wild Indian, something that made no sense, under the circumstances, but which their parents and grandparents had taught them to identify as an enemy. They tied his hands and feet—as if he were really capable of escaping—and sent for the sheriff…
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Álvaro Enrigue was born in Mexico in 1969. He is an essayist, critic, professor, and the author of several novels and books of stories. His first novel La muerte de un instalador won the 1996 Joaquín Mortiz Prize. In 2007, the “Bogotá39″ project named him one of the most promising Latin American writers of his generation. This story appears in Hyperthermia, his first book in English translation, just published by Dalkey Archive Press. He appears at Book Expo 2013’s spotlight on Mexico, Friday May 31 at the BEA Mexico Booth (1356) and Saturday June 1 at McNally Jackson Bookstore with LS author José Manuel Prieto.
Brendan Riley has worked for years as a teacher, translator, writer, and editor. He is the translator of Carlos Fuentes’s The Great Latin American Novel and Juan Filloy’s Faction, among other works.