Cover of the 1975 Atheneum edition
|Series||Collection Terre humaine|
Tristes Tropiques is a memoir, first published in France in 1955, by the anthropologist and structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss. It documents his travels and anthropological work, focusing principally on Brazil, though it refers to many other places, such as the Caribbean and India. Although ostensibly a travelogue, the work is infused with philosophical reflections and ideas linking many academic disciplines, such as sociology, geology, music, history and literature. The title literally means The Sad Tropics, but was translated into English by John Russell as A World on the Wane.
The book consists of 36 chapters, organised into nine sections.
Parts 1 to 3 detail Lévi-Strauss' reflections on leaving Europe and visiting the New World and the Tropics, comparing his first impressions with subsequent visits, relating aspects of his academic training as well as his work as a professor during the founding years of São Paulo University.
Part 4 'The Earth and its Inhabitants' sets out a geographical analysis of the development of South American settlements, as well as an aside into social structure in India and what is now Pakistan.
Part 9 'The Return' closes the book with reflections on, among other themes, the nature and purpose of anthropology, the effects of travel on the mind, the roles of Buddhism and Islam in global culture, humankind's place in the universe and our connections to the world and to one another.
The opening sentence, 'I hate traveling and explorers', is notable for its irony and in general the narrative is highly reflexive, often critiquing itself or the author's and reader's assumed pretensions, such as a thirst for the 'exotic'.
Though the writing style is fluid, almost conversational at times, the structure of the text is extremely complex, linking together numerous places, times and ideas. For example, Part One: 'An End to Journeying' connects Lévi-Strauss' first trip to Brazil in 1935 with his escape from France to New York in 1941 and his later visits to South America, in a stylistic imitation of memory.
Lévi-Strauss frequently makes connections between ostensibly diverse entities or ideas to underline a point. For example, in Chapter 14, he compares the ancient cities of the Indus valley with those of the US in the mid-20th century, implying that Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa could be imagined as foreshadowing contemporary Chicago or São Paulo 'after a prolonged period of involution in the European chrysalis'.
The work maintains an elegiac and poetic tone, lamenting a 'lost' New World  but is tempered by a strong ambivalence, perhaps a product of the paradoxical idealized status of the anthropologist as a 'detached observer' who nevertheless remains engaged as a human participant.
In its assessments of the impact of development on the environment, the 'shrinking' of the world through travel and tourism and the consequent emergence of a form of 'monoculture', Tristes Tropiques seems remarkably prescient.
Critical reception and influence
The book was well-received on its publication. The organizers of the Prix Goncourt lamented that they were not able to award Lévi-Strauss the prize because Tristes Tropiques was technically non-fiction. Georges Bataille wrote a favourable review and Susan Sontag classed it as one of the 20th century's 'great books'.
- Claude Levi Strauss (1955) Tristes Tropiques (1973 English translation by John and Doreen Weightman) New York: Atheneum
- Tristes Tropiques p.37f.
- Tristes Tropiques p.130
- Tristes Tropiques p.74
- Tristes Tropiques p.412ff.
- Wikipedia article Claude Lévi-Strauss
- Wikipedia article Claude Lévi-Strauss
- 'Un livre humain, un grand livre' », Critique, n°105, février 1956.
- New York Times: A Hero of our Time
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- Tristes Tropiques on Internet Archive—full text of 1961 English translation by John Russell
- List of works by Claude Lévi-Strauss
- Claude Lévi Strauss' profile on the Académie française site (French)
- Documentaire 52': About "Tristes Tropiques" 1991 - Film Super 16