City of the Beasts is Chilean magical-realist author Isabel Allende’s tenth novel, and her first YA one (although it was published way back in 2002, before that genre really came into focus). Its protagonist is 15-year-old Alex Cold, who’s whisked away by his grandmother on an adventure into the Amazon, searching for a cryptid known as the Beast: an enormous creature that walks on two legs and emits a fabulously awful smell. They’re joined by guide Cesar Santos and his twelve-year-old daughter Nadia, narcissistic anthropologist Ludovic Leblanc (who has built a career off claiming that the indigenous peoples of the Amazon are murderous and savage) and Venezeulan doctor Omayra Torres. But! Alex and Nadia hear the expedition’s co-sponsor, wealthy industrialist Mauro Carias, plotting to use the expedition to exterminate the indigenous tribes in the area they’re heading to in order to gain access to the Amazon’s mineral wealth. Uncovering this plot, and protecting the people of the Amazon from unchecked greed and ignorance, takes Alex and Nadia on a quest into the rainforest’s heart, where they encounter the People of the Mist, an uncontacted tribe who fear the cultural eradication or assimilation that will undoubtedly accompany the incursion of the outside world into their land.
Allende’s novel is, then, a Bildungsroman: it charts Alex’s passage from slightly spoiled California teenager to saviour and honorary member of an Amazon tribe. He and Nadia meet their totemic animals (yes, I know; hold that thought, please), go through official initiation rituals and travel to the home of the gods in order to win valuable treasures for themselves and the People of the Mist. I don’t think it could be more Bildungsroman if it tried. There’s a clear dichotomy throughout the book between modern Western life, which Allende portrays as “tame”, dull and ecologically rapacious, and life in the Amazon, where honour can be won, where all is in harmony with the rainforest, where ancient wonders and magical things walk. One of the indigenous people accompanying the expedition party, Karakawe, is said to have been infected by the “madness” of Western individuality, and is thus unlikely to return to his tribe. And it’s significant that the first time picky eater Alex gets to eat to his heart’s content after entering the rainforest is at the behest of the wealth-hungry Mauro Carias.
The idea that Western influence is bad for the Amazon and its people is not, on the face of it, that objectionable: if history tells us anything it’s that indigenous people rarely come off better in the long run for encountering Westerners; and it’s certainly true that the Amazon rainforest is being destroyed at a terrifying rate by people who are largely after profit. The book’s ecological message, and its conclusion that perhaps the West and its scientists shouldn’t get their grubby hands on everything, are…things I can get behind.
Here’s the rub, though. I can’t help wondering what research, if any, Allende conducted into the indigenous tribes of the Amazon. Her portrayal of them is so romanticised, so New Age-y, that I wouldn’t be surprised if she had done none. They live perfect lives, in perfect harmony with the forest; the only diseases they get are measles brought by outsiders (as opposed to, for example, malaria). Alex’s picky eating habits get discarded once among them, for obvious reasons, but the implication that food hygiene is a needless Western luxury feels like an oversimplification – I imagine even indigenous peoples can get food poisoning. But the main problem is that, put simply, none of the People of the Mist feel, well, like people. Children, maybe. Inscrutable alien Others. But not humans with complex motivations and emotional lives. Which is, in its own way, as racist as Ludovic Leblanc’s outrageous claims about their savagery. It’s also uncomfortable that they’re saved by two outsider teenagers, one of them a white boy, and that the whole story is told from the perspective of those outsiders, instead of the perspective of those whose livelihoods are the ones at risk.
There are things about City of the Beasts that I want to like, particularly its ecological message and its quite pragmatic approach to the gods of the People of the Mist – an approach that allows space for the supernatural while still offering a rational explanation for the gods’ presence. But its patronising take on indigenous life is unignorable; it’s fundamental to how the novel works, and so I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone read it.