Landscapes of Silence: From Childhood to the Arctic, by Hugh Brody

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Review by Peter Reason

On the first page of Landscapes of Silence is a list of the many words for snow in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit hunters and gatherers of the eastern Arctic.  Brody invites us to read these words out loud even as we stumble over the unfamiliar combinations of letters: quanik, aputi, sitilluqaaq, igluvigaksaq… All these words refer to  what we in English call ‘snow’, and yet no two of them seem to be related. So do the Inuit have many words for ‘snow’? or none? Each word represents a different form of the white stuff that we call snow, for the world as expressed in Inuktitut is one in which generalities and categories are avoided: entities are known by their specific, detailed qualities.

What is the point of this story? During his long stay with Inuit people, Brody tells us, ‘As I learned the word for snow, I learned also that there is a whole other way of learning and sustaining knowledge, and, most important of all, that the wellbeing of the Inuit might be inseparable from the wellbeing of humanity’. As with many other indigenous languages, Inuktitut is at risk, silenced by imperialism and colonialism. And this silence is allied to dispossession: a whole way of life, and a whole way of seeing and making sense of the world is lost. This is true not just for Inuktitut, but for indigenous languages across the planet.

But what drew Brody, a boy from the suburbs of Sheffield, to spend so much of his life and career as an anthropologist, at what he describes as the ‘edges of the world’? He becomes deeply involved with Inuit people, learning Inuktitut so that he may, in the words of his teacher Anaviapik, speak for the Inuit to the wider world. As he writes this memoir at the end of his career, he realizes that he too comes from a world of dispossession and silence: ‘I was brought up in the aftermath of the Second World War, living a childhood in which the Nazis and mass murder were half hidden but always present, in a Jewish family that was riven by worries that it might or might not belong’. 

In this account of his childhood, Brody gives us moving and intimate portraits of his family – his mother in particular – and of life in 1950s Sheffield. His mother, who had fled the Holocaust with her mother, refused to discuss her past, doing her best to fit into a Sheffield suburbia. As a Jewish boy he learned to read and write Hebrew, celebrated his bar mitzvah, but with no mention of the losses of European Jews and little identification with Israel and the wider Jewish project. They lived in silence of such matters. But his grandmother, a fierce and indomitable woman who could not believe she had settled in England, this ‘cold Atlantic rock’, would whisper to him conspiratorially, hinting at things that he must know about being a Jew, stories of relatives in Dachau and Buchenwald: ‘You could never escape… you should not try to escape’.  As a gentile, I found this account casting fresh light on aspects of the Jewish experience and on stories that I had heard from close friends with similar backgrounds, although of course Brody is in no way attempting to speak for all Jewish people,.

Brody writes of his attempts to escape this bewilderment, first on the moors and with the natural world. After a disastrous start to working life as a trainee accountant, he goes to Israel to work on a kibbutz. He visits distant relatives who have made the different choice to move to Israel, who had escaped Nazi Germany to Palestine as the ‘one possible sanctuary’ and from whom he learns a different version of the anguish of Jewish history. At the kibbutz, he identifies with the socialist and egalitarian ethos but he also confronts the dispossession of the Palestinian Arabs when he has to carry a rifle for self-protection while harvesting bananas. Yet, visiting a Druze family he has met in their village, he finds himself ‘intensely alive… this was a first discovery of what would become the heartland of my life, a feeling of homecoming among strangers’. Yet back in England, now at the time of the Eichmann trial and Six Day War, as a liberal minded Jew he again meets a culture of silence.

The UK paperback edition

Israel was his first attempt at getting away, but it ‘took me back into the depths of where I came from. He was drawn to the far north as the ‘most compelling place to be an anthropologist’, and so the story moves on to the Arctic and to the Inuit. As he learns Inuktitut he feels welcomed both on the land and in his new acquaintances’ houses: ‘the warmth, the generosity and humour of everyday life…’ that were deeply embedded in Inuit hunter-gatherers ways of being on their land, and with each other. As in Brody’s other books – maybe in particular The Other Side of Eden (a text I used for many years in my attempts to show management undergraduates that individualist capitalism was not the only way of being in the world!) – one develops, even at a distance, deep empathy for the people he portrays.

There are many significant accounts of living with the Inuit in the second half of the book, told with insight and affection. But the most significant theme is one of silence and silencing. When, after a long absence, he returns to the Arctic he finds the Inuit people have been disposessed of the life and land  by the process of colonialism: some of this intentional, some casual. Their land is being transformed out of recognition by climate change. They as a community have lost the capacity to speak of this loss through fear and domination from the white people from the south. They are intimidated. They are asking ‘Are we real Inuit?’ and remind Brody ‘You must remember how happy everyone was.’ This has led, among other things, to a pandemic of sexual abuse and suicide among young people, which itself cannot be spoken. 

Brody writes ‘The human mind depends on speaking and listening, hearing and telling stories. If there is silence, an absence of words, a failure of speaking and listening, then there is much about who we are that we cannot know… Thus silence in the home can leave a void in the child’. And we are taken back full circle to the silence of his own upbringing.

Brody sees this silencing as part of a wider, cultural issue. He understands from his time with the Inuit that there are ‘societies living without the need to transform the environment or overwhelm other peoples’. He sees how capitalism and imperialism, deeply embedded with ideas of development and progress, are ‘dense with racism’ and eradicating alternative forms of the human condition. 

Hugh Brody is one of many contemporary writers challenging the society in which we are all embedded, showing us at a profound and fundamental level the degree of devastation we in the ‘developed’ world have wrought.  They show how desperately important it is to listen to other – mainly indigenous – voices. David Graeber and David Wengrow, in The Dawn of Everything, show us how narrow are Western assumptions of ‘normal’ human society and open ‘possibilities for different, maybe more creative and liberating, arrangements for contemporary and future society.’  Barry Lopez’, in Embrace Fearlessly a Burning World:  

through his attentive journeying, has touched another world, a world that can only be known through mutual love and attention, and has allowed us a glimpse of how we might be different, even beautiful. 

And Amitav Ghosh writes at the close of The Nutmeg’s Curse:

in the face of unrelenting, apocalyptic violence, that nonhumans can, do, and must speak. It is essential now, as the prospect of planetary catastrophe comes ever closer, that those nonhuman voices be restored to our stories… The fate of humans, and all our relatives, depends on it. 

Brody ends his book with powerful statement in parallel: 

Capitalism and its colonial frontiers are just one version of humanity, causing and defending greed, racism, inequality and the constant drawing down and destruction of the earth itself. These are all agents of death, causing and relying on silence. Life depends on opposing them all.

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Peter Reason is currently engaged in a series of experiential co-operative inquiries exploring living cosmos panpsychism: How does Land and the community of life speak to us? How do we learn to listen?  He is writing about this inquiry in a series of posts on Substack Learning How Land Speaks. His most recent publications include The Teachings of Mistle Thrush and Kingfisher,  On Presence, and On Sentience (all with artist Sarah Gillespie). His online presence is at peterreason.net, Twitter @peterreason, and peterreason.substack.com

Hugh Brody, Landscapes of Silence (Faber, 2022). 978-0571370948, 352pp., paperback..

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