Those who believe in something greater than themselves – something almighty, something all-knowing and something all-encompassing – should not take umbrage at the arrogance of men of science. Now it is true that that the discoveries of the last few hundred years have greatly changed how we view our universe, and how agreeably we exist within it. But we should not forget the nihility of the physicist's black holes, the bondage of being nothing more than a link on a long chain of beasts, the emptiness at the bottom of the zealous chemist's alembic. Through fortune and ingenuity we have surpassed all our predecessors in speed of communication as well as some creature comforts that we would not likely give back – yet this comes at a price. Although we are advanced and equipped like never before, we no longer fend for ourselves. For keys to all the things we value we consult a locksmith; for the meat we devour we need a butcher; for the software and computers that have transformed our lives in so many extraordinary ways, the vast majority of us still require the aid of a technology specialist. We know the tools that science has laid at our feet, but their manufacture is divided among so many masters that we might conclude that for every step towards man's conquest of his planet he has become increasingly helpless. Which brings us to a story from this collection.
In a forest in Eastern Bolivia that is home to this tiny tribe, our guides are a pair of British anthropologists, Wilkins and Goldbaum. Perhaps it is always the British, renowned for being emotionally distant, that feel impassioned by these miniature studies of miniature civilizations; perhaps the fact that one of them may be of Jewish descent makes us more sympathetic to their interests. They have learned hitherto only a "hundred-odd words" of Siriono, much more than what English they have been able to teach "the most intelligent and curious man in the village," Achtiti. And their struggles, already keen and daily, are exacerbated by the destruction – whether it was wilful remains one of the story's many mysteries – of their campsite. They dare not leave the site with Siriono instructions since these might prove fatal. So they decide to ask the tribe to dispatch one of its own to seek help from a contact, Suarez, in Candelaria, the closest town:
The following day, Wilkins prepared the letter for Suarez in Candelaria. He had the idea of drafting it in two versions, one written in Spanish for Suarez and one ideographic, so that both Achtiti and the messenger could get the gist of the mission's purpose and put aside their evident suspicion. The second version showed the messenger himself walking southwest, along the river; twenty suns were intended to represent the length of the journey. Then came the city: tall huts, and among them many men and women in trousers and skirts and with hats on their heads. Finally, there was a bigger man, pushing the motorboat into the river, with three men on board and sacks of provisions, and the boat going back up the river; in this last image, the messenger was on board, stretched out and eating from a bowl.
The vision of Candelaria, a town of admittedly no more than five thousand inhabitants, differs so greatly from the tiny Siriono enclave that one might have imagined Wilkins was describing London. In the meantime, there is little the two foreigners can do but hope that a boat returns with Sanchez and that they will not be slaughtered ("as they do with their old people") owing to their immediate uselessness. Useless, that is, until the Englishmen survey their remaining belongings and find a tape recorder, gobs of currency, two watches, and most importantly, a box of matches. The tape recorder was used before the story's events to record Achtiti's voice, playback that engenders fear and loathing; but when the explorers produce small sticks that burn after contact, the natives become very restless indeed.
The story has a moral that is all too obvious, although sometimes the best lessons are the ones we have to repeat. It is never determined whether Wilkins and Goldbaum are good men or even good ethnographers. What can be said about their approach to one of the world's most notoriously primitive tribes is that they care for accuracy and justice in human affairs, even if there are many indications that they do not think all men to be equal. Towards the end of our tale, we learn more about this tribe, so baffling in its simplicity:
They are not familiar with metals, they do not possess terms for numbers higher than three, and although they often have to cross swamps and rivers, they do not know how to build boats. They do know, however, that at one time they were able to do so, and the story is passed down among them of a hero who had the name of the Moon and who had taught their people (then much more numerous) three arts: to light fires, to carve out canoes, and to make bows. Of these, only the last survives; they have even forgotten the method of making fire.
One could envision a world without light or fire if the sun caressed our limbs in sufficient quantity; one could even more easily do without metal, canoes or transportation of any kind; but what seems unfathomable is a life no greater than three. What of the endless universe and its innumerable questions? Can they really be reduced to nothing more than parents and one beloved child, the sides of a triangle, the Trinity and its contradictions that are not really contradictions? Perhaps there's something to the uncomplicated life after all.