Through the Arc of the Rainforest by Karen Tei Yamashita: Literary Analysis
Through the Arc of the Rainforest is a post modern novel by Karen Tei Yamashita, published in 1990. It is written in the genre of magical realism which explains the confluence of many themes and literary elements in one text. It is possible to assume that the main theme of the novel is showing the contemporary community with all absurd things that form it.
The novel offers a concentrated portion of absurd that is written in an ironical way and this ultimate stage of ironical absurdity makes the real problems discussed in the novel even more understandable by contrast. The author uses literary elements like plot, symbolism and irony in depicting contemporary reality, which makes the novel a classical post modern text and makes the readers think who they really laugh at when they imagine the absurdity of the described world.
The novel reflects the essence of the post modern culture in general. Among its main characteristics it is possible to emphasize kitsch, pastiche and irony. Through the Arc of the Rainforest features all these components, which makes it a bright example of post modern aesthetics in literature. The novel is written in the form of the Brazilian soup opera and it corresponds to the notion of the pastiche, when the traditional form is filled with unusual content and message. The usage of the form of the soup opera, as well as the other examples from the text, which will be discussed later, also refers to the notion of kitsch, because it uses the things from the pop culture and make the readers understand the irony of the narration. In fact, the novel corresponds greatly to the dominant contemporary philosophy and thus reflects the feelings that many people experience.
The narration in Through the Arc of the Rainforest is unusual even for a post modern literature. The story is told by the extra-terrestrial ball with self consciousness that follows one of the protagonists of the novel, Kazumasa Ishimaru. This Brazilian soap opera starts with short episodes that introduce the protagonists of the novel, describing their relation to the mysterious place of the Matacao, which is a magical black substance of the unknown origin found in the Brazilian rain forest.
The place of the Matacao is the key element in building the plot of the novel. Its presence in the story makes all conflicts possible, because it is the only common thing that unites all of the protagonists of Through the Arc of the Rainforest. First, just after the Matacao becomes a tourist attraction for those, who search for the religious miracles, the pilgrims start gathering in this place. Thania and Batista Djapan commence working with mass media to use the pilgrimage to the Matacao a profitable media event with much advertising. Then, Mané Pena, a Brazilian farmer, who has discovered the Matacao some time ago, decides to change the profession and becomes a new age healer, who is able to cure by broadcasting the mystical emanations of the black rain forest. Another issue that is important in building a story line is connected with GGG, the conglomerate of influential corporations from the United States, who come to the Matacao to explore the mysterious black substance and to use it to the highest commercial potential. A symbolic protagonist, a three handed bureaucrat J. B. Tweep is also introduced into the plot through the GGG company. The narrator himself, Kazumasa Ishimaru, is taken as a hostage by J. B. Tweep.
The tourist and healing business connected with the Matacao grows dramatically. More and more people come to this place and soon it transforms into the commercial center. The businessmen try to use all possible opportunities for developing their entrepreneurship and the Matacao becomes a product for selling itself. Even though such tourist attraction as the Matacao makes Brazil an important player on the global business arena, the region is suffering from deterioration and exploitation of natural and human resources. The protagonists of the story are becoming less content with their lives, they lose the desires and become more and more isolated from each other. The only person who is becoming content with the situation is J. B. Tweep.
The message of such complicated narration is rather simple – the author tried to show the readers the contemporary globalized world, where everything can be turned into the trade mark and effectively sold to millions of people. When something extraordinary happens, thousands of successful three handed businessmen arrive and try to make profit out of the mystery, even by means of taking hostages in order to achieve their goal. The problem of such business activity is that mostly all people do not become happier because of selling or buying something. Such consumerism makes them more alienated than they used to be, and the market relationships spoil their lives.
Despite the simple message of the plot, Karen Tei Yamashita introduces numerous examples that relate to the concepts of development, loss and return into the text. There can be several possible explanations to this complication of the plot. According to the first version, it is made in order to make the style of the novel is similar to the narration of the Brazilian soup opera. It is impossible to imagine a soup opera without such exaggerated actions. The protagonists have to be in motion from the very beginning of the narration and it makes the plot interesting for the readers to follow. It is partly the way to underline the absurdity of the entire situation by using the low genre of the soup opera in the supposedly serious novel. It absolutely supports the ideas of kitsch and pastiche. In addition, such stylization is quite unusual for the literature and interesting to follow. That is why it is possible to suppose that the author used such concepts from the soup operas to make the book more interesting for the mass audience.
Another idea that might explain the importance of multiple losses and returns in the plot of Through the Arc of the Rainforest is hiding the simple message in purpose. It is not interesting to give moral lessons that are easy to understand in the novels. Instead of this it is an effective choice to hide the theme of the novel in the labyrinth of the activity that means in fact nothing. As Through the Arc of the Rainforest is a post modern book, the concept of playing with the reader is not strange and it is possible to suppose that the author was meaning it when she composed such covering for the theme.
The novel is full of symbolism, that helps to transfer the narration from the imaginary place of the Matacao to the level of allegories. The first important symbol is the Macatao itself. It is considered to be the mysterious place that has supernatural origin and even more supernatural powers in healing. In the time and investments, the Macatao becomes a cult, where crowds of people search for lost paradise. In the end it turns out that the mysterious black place in the middle of the rain forest is actually the result of the industrial waste, its byproduct. This symbolic black plastic place in the jungle is the sign of environmental degradation from one point of view and of extensively growing globalization in its worst aspects from another.
Karen Tei Yamashita refers to the symbol of the “junkyard in the jungle” in her descriptions of the Matcao. It is quite symbolic and urgent by its nature, because it reflects the situation with the environment. Perhaps, everyone knows about the harm of technological progress to the ozone layer or to the jungles, that are cut. The ecosystem is being constantly destroyed by people, who do not hesitate when they start ruining the planet. The symbol of the the junkyard is quite simple and easy to understand, yet it does not reduce its importance in understanding the message of the novel, that is in showing that people have chosen the wrong direction in their development.
It might be interesting to think about the Macatao as the notion from perspective of the utilitarian ethics. According to it, the event or the thing is right if the majority of people receive profit from it and only a small percentage of them are harmed. From the utilitarian point of view the commercial park and the trade mark that GGG has made from the Macatao is positive, because those people who wanted to believe in something religious got their faith, those, who wanted to visit a tourist attraction also get it. However, the nature is obviously killed, because the Macatao is the junkyard of the technological world.
In the metaphorical sense, those protagonists who were indigenous and natural in the beginning of the novel also die. For example, Chico Paco and Mané Pena, who are connected with the Amazonian indigeneity, suffer from the commercialization of the Macatao and die in the end because of the indirect activity of the three handed bureaucrat Jonathan B. Tweep. GGG wants to achieve technological miracles with the help of the extra-terrestrial ball above Kazumasa’s head and wants to kill him, but kills the angel Chico Paco instead of him. In fact, the symbolism of the Macatao is the critique of the degradation that the globalized world bring to the yet virgin places.
Jonathan B. Tweep was mentioned many times in this essay and the symbolism that personifies is obviously worth mentioning. Eveything that is connected with him is extremely ironical. He has three arms and it makes him a highly efficient bureaucrat. J. B. Tweep works for the GGG corporation and works effectively in the Matacao. A peculiar thing is that he does not think that his third arm is a mutation. He accepts it and is proud of it, and in addition he is sure that he is the first man of the new genetic kind that was born from the sperm which won the Nobel prize. He is absolutely obsessed with increasing the profits of the corporation by all possible meas and paperclips. According to the plot of the novel, he meets Michelle Mabelle, an ornithologist with three arms that fit perfectly Mr. Tweep’s three hands, they marry, give birth to triplets and then they break up.
The entire description is the absolute irony from its beginning to the end and perhaps this irony is the way the author tries to attract attention to the problem that such people do really exist. They prefer artificial things to natural, they are highly effective and in fact they do not know what love is, because it is a natural sentiment, and the results of the work of Noble prize winning sperms can not understand it. Having three hands, three breasts and giving birth to triplets is quite funny, but if the symbolic meaning of such mutation will be taken into consideration, the metaphor might become scaring. The human kind is changing, it goes far from the natural state of things and hails the artificial mutation they have acquired instead of understanding that something has gone wrong. Such inability to understand that the changes are not for the better is scaring.
The feather cult is another symbol that is used in the narration. Mané Pena calls himself the father of featherology and denounces his feather cult the only possible and right feather cult. The other cult of the feathers that work secretly are heretical and not sacred, comparing to his feather cult. Such description is very similar to the way the religious groups work nowadays and it is possible to state that the feather cult symbol is the allusion to those groups. The description is quite ironical and it becomes even more harsh when the author writes about “suicides by gravity”, when the adepts of the false cults jumped from the buildings with feathers and were not able to fly, because the feathers were artificial. An interesting detail is that Mané Pena himself can not distinguish natural feathers from artificial ones.
The modern world is made of absurd things, and the desires of people to be highly effective, globalized and successful are tearing the common sense apart. Karen Tei Yamashita in her postmodern novel Through the Arc of the Rainforest depicted it in the ironical manner. The symbolism she used and the form of the soup opera which determines the development of the plot emphasize the atmosphere of absurd and makes the readers think about the message, that is hidden by numerous events, losses and returns of the plot.
Yamashita, Karen T. Through the Arc of the Rainforest. Optima, 1991. Print.