TALKS TUPI OR NOT TUPI On savouring a fellow human – a patchwork (flesh fiction)
de en

On savouring a fellow human – a patchwork (flesh fiction)

Anthropophagy. An outlandish concept that has nothing to do with my life or my reading – or so I thought. But no sooner have I come across the word than my revulsion gives way to a growing fascination, fed by the thought-provoking and informative essays in this Tupi series. It’s a series as broad as it is ambivalent: depending on culture, era, religion, tradition, and intent (fiction, scaremongering, propaganda), any interpretation of anthropophagy is possible. Final taboo or ultimate proof of love; a strategy for scaring away enemies or mode of ‘radical hospitality’;1 a colonial narrative or an emancipatory act of reclamation; a way to honour an opponent and incorporate their courage and strength, or a ritual commemorating your ancestors by consuming part of someone who has died to allow them to live on. Or take the case of cannibalistic translation, Melanie Strasser’s ‘transluciferation’, in which creation and destruction become one. At first glance, it’s an attractive prospect for a translator, because it evokes an idea of complete freedom.

But the thing is that I, like Uljana Wolf, don’t want to and cannot use violence when it comes to translation. I’m not one for pulverisation. And not least because I – as a contemporary European translator into German from two colonial languages – have a completely different background and perspective to someone like Oswald de Andrade, along with different responsibilities. I can, however, take inspiration from him and the work he influenced, if I attempt to shake off my own eurocentrism, mindful of the origin, content, and form of my source text. Then I can approach the text in a way which is as open, as unprejudiced and, yes, as porous as possible. Because that’s what it’s about: approaching the text with a keen ear, a sharp eye, and a delicate touch – rather than chewing it up, wolfing it down, and letting it decompose.

What still interests me, though – now more than ever – is the idea of anthropophagy as a kind of skeleton key to understanding the world. Because as soon as you start paying attention to it, you realise it’s lurking everywhere, in very different, contradictory forms. In various guises, anthropophagy has marked the history of culture and humankind: it has been instrumentalised, revised and deconstructed, reappeared across multiple art forms, and inspired theoretical treatises. It’s present in references, reflections and fallacies, whether archaic, archetypical or avantgarde; infernal or utopian. Anthropophagy can influence how you determine your own position – and not only in relation to questions of translation theory. And what’s more, a closer look at global history reveals anthropophagy to be a powerful tool of othering.

Back to the Roots

Whereas the word anthropophagy is self-explanatory even if you aren’t familiar with Ancient Greek, cannibalism, often used as a synonym, is somewhat opaque. It’s worth looking at the latter term’s etymology, however, because it elucidates a certain misunderstanding2 (the first of many), founded on age-old prejudices and the desire to discredit others for personal gain:

The word ‘cannibalism’ can be traced back to the Kalinago, the Indigenous people of the West Indies. When Colombus first docked at the island Hispaniola, he noted in his logbook for 14th November 1492 that the island’s inhabitants lived in constant fear of the ‘caniba’ or ‘canima’, their neighbours from the island of Bohío. They were reputedly one-eyed, had the faces of dogs, and ate humans. […] The word Columbus misheard as ‘caniba’ or ‘canima’ was in fact the self-designation of these Indigenous people, which originally meant something like ‘brave’ (cf. Tupi ‘caribya’, meaning ‘hero’). In Kalinago, the phonemes ‘l’, ‘n’ and ‘r’ are allophones, and so it is possible that Colombus did faithfully record what he heard. Whereas in Spanish, the variants ‘caribe’ and ‘caribal’ came to refer to the inhabitants of the Caribbean coasts, ‘canibal’ took on the meaning ‘man-eater’ and it was in this form that the word appeared in various European languages. Its first recorded use in German was in 1508.3

Nestled in this nutshell of a definition is the whole calamity of colonialism. Brave heroes are transformed into terrifying monsters from exoticized realms. As a translator, this instance of a neologism having such destructive potential offers significant food for thought. I’d almost be tempted to dismiss cannibalism as pure fiction and relegate it to the land of eternally productive myths, if science hadn’t struck a path through the thicket of legends and projections. But of course it’s not that simple, as ethnographer Heike Behrend observes in Incarnation of an Ape:

In his 1979 book The Man-Eating Myth, anthropologist William Arens declared that cannibals were dead. He claimed that cannibals had never existed and were predominantly a (colonial) stereotype of radical otherness. Claude Lévi-Strauss, however, insisted on the existence of cannibalistic practices – perhaps because he was chiefly interested in the Americas and recent research confirmed that there, in a few regions, various forms of cannibalism were still present, including necrophagy.

Pop goes the ogre

And yet the phenomenon is by no means radically other; both ‘man-eater’ and the French loanword ‘ogre’ lead straight back to the origins of popular culture, the familiar world of legends and fairytales. These stories express primal human fears – and what could be more terrifying than the thought of being eaten by an ogre, dapper as he may be?

Gustave Doré, derivative work: Tsaag Valren, Public domain

Whilst the European cannibals were, then, similar to their creators and readers, only with larger limbs and bigger appetites, the appearance of the first global travel accounts marks a turning point. New notions emerge, grounded in antique myths of the ‘evil savage’. Anthropophagy, now increasingly dubbed ‘cannibalism’ and thereby located a touch more concretely in the furthest South, becomes the polar opposite of desirable civilisation.4 This understanding of cannibalism endures right through to the popular culture of the latter 20th century, where cannibalism is often trivialised, as in Hergé’s The Adventures of Jo, Zette and Jocko when the characters are fattened up by cannibals, or ironically reconfigured, as in Serge Gainsbourg’s song ‘Mambo miam miam’:5 peak palatability. It is only thanks to recent critical efforts that the long unquestioned persistence of colonial clichés (and their tangibly self-serving origins) has been exposed. That’s not to say that these now-classic works should be banished to the poison cabinet or retroactively censored. To my mind, it’s much more productive to grapple with how such images were passed down for so many years and what they reveal about the circumstances of their production. In most cases, this kind of reflection yields enough material for an interesting preface or afterword contextualising the work (or for notes, footnotes or glossaries, according to taste).6

Eat your heart out

Whenever eros crops up in literature, anthropophagy is never far behind. This essay series has frequently referenced the ‘Rotenburg Cannibal’ and he's already been immortalised in Senthuran Varatharajah’s novel Rot (Hunger), so I’d prefer to discuss another Serge Gainsbourg song, ‘L’eau à la bouche’. In this song, the singer beseeches the addressee not to fear or resist his ravenous request. But I’m also thinking of a scene from Anne Serre’s The Governesses, which I translated a while ago. The scene is as bewitching as it is disturbing. The jury’s out on whether it is a ‘celebration of feminine eroticism’, as most critics concurred, or, as Adam Soboczynski suggested in a podcast with Iris Radisch, an act of brutal violence which was only condoned because it was carried out by women. In the scene, two of the three titular governesses – young women whose characters combine qualities of the Charities and the Furies and offer a refreshingly complex image of femininity – hunt and kill a beautiful young man so that they can feast on him. Or does he willingly yield to them? Anne Serre, a master of ambiguity, leaves it open:

It’s six in the evening by the time they’ve finished. The man has been bled dry, his handsome, open hands lying lifeless beside his body. Because he’s cold and doesn’t move, they put his clothes back on. Then, a bit the worse for wear, but happy and replete, they make their way back to the house in silence.7

What’s unambiguous, however, is that these amorous hunts are a source of joy and vitality for the governesses and offer respite from the monotony of their reclusive existence. Whenever too much time passes between hunts, they fall into an apathetic melancholy. Occasional incorporation is as essential to life as their daily sustenance. The question remains whether a mere reversal of power relations really does make the level of violence more palatable. As far as real life is concerned, the answer is a resounding ‘no’, but in literature (as Anne Serre herself would argue), there’s room to experiment.

Ultima ratio

When anthropophagy isn’t being performed as a ritual, deployed as a metaphor for passionate conquests, or used as the foundation of a manifesto, it has one simple purpose, reserved for situations of utmost need: survival. The idea is so monstrous, so unimaginable, such a clear breach of taboo, that it represents a particularly potent source of inspiration for art, whether horror films or painting. And an artwork like Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, an iconic representation of true events and epitome of horror, in turn inspires subsequent works across various media. 

Théodore Géricault: The Raft of the Medusa

Marie Darrieussecq, for example, references Géricault’s painting in her novel La Mer à l'envers (Upside-Down Sea). Her description of a shipwreck in the Mediterranean, nowadays the watery grave of countless people in need, brings the painting into the technophilic 21st century:

But then the room was filled with a ringing, buzzing, whistling, vibrating, as if thousands of droplets had suddenly fallen from the ceiling at once. Everyone lowered their heads. Blue squares of light illuminated everyone’s faces. Signal. They were approaching the coast. Everyone on board the Raft of Medusa checked their phones.

A timely rescue ultimately saves these travellers from cannibalism, but the reference to Géricault is enough to evoke what might have been: a situation of utmost need and the potential last resort.

And the flesh was made word

In her review of Senthuran Varatharajah’s aforementioned novel, Birte Mühlhoff questions the use of religion and skewers a cliché which I in fact find attractively plausible, even on a superficial level:

Or are we dealing with that old, supposedly witty notion of Christian communion as a kind of symbolic cannibalism?

Notwithstanding the fact that this would more likely be a case of theophagy (which would definitely be taking this essay too far), the transubstantiation of bread and wine into body and blood does occur on a spiritual level, and the eucharist provides spiritual nourishment. Nothing could be further from the giant cauldrons of cannibal caricatures – and according to the Bible, human sacrifices were abolished with Abraham, long before Jesus’s birth. Across religions, prayer itself became the offering, with the word nourishing belief (imagination, exchange), love (of friends and enemies), hope (of successful communication and mutual inspiration). The spirit (of many kinds) comes upon us and enables us to speak in many tongues, without the need for any prior mutilation. This image of translation resonates with me more than that of the anthropophagists, but it’s only through productive engagement with their ideas that I’ve been able to reach this conclusion.


©Ebba D. Drolshagen

Patricia Klobusiczky (*1968) was born to a French mother and Hungarian father and raised in France and Germany. She studied literary translation in Düsseldorf and after working as an editor for Rowohlt Verlag, she began translating French and English literature into German. Authors she has translated include Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam, William Boyd, Marie Darrieussecq, Petina Gappah, Catherine Mavrikakis (with Sonja Finck), Anne Serre, Louise de Vilmorin, Valérie Zenatti and Ruth Zylberman.

She regularly works as a mentor with the Berliner Übersetzerwerkstatt and as part of the Deutscher Übersetzerfonds’ Bode program. From 2017–2021 she was head of the German Translators Association (VdÜ). She is a member of several juries, including the Brücke Berlin Literature and Translation Prize and the Paul Celan Prize. Her translations have been awarded numerous scholarships and in 22/23 she was a guest professor at the Europa University in Flensburg. She is also one of the first literary translators to receive the International Artists’ Villa Concordia (Bamberg) Scholarship.

Verwandte Artikel
Juchhei Kulturgeierei – ein Bekenntnis oder besser zwei
Titty, or not titty, that is the question
Anthropophagie und Gastfreundschaft
zu Oswald de Andrade und Haroldo de Campos
Kannibalisches Übersetzen oder Zur Poetik der Einverleibung