I like to travel and to observe the cities, landscapes, the plants and animals and the human inhabitants of the countries I go to. So does Levy-Strauss, and he is a fantastic observer, much more sharp-eyed than I could ever hope to be, and a highly entertaining writer. In this classic he talks about a wide range of observations from a number of corners of the world, but mainly about South America.
The book deals with Levi-Strauss' time as a teacher in Brazil and his trips into the South American hinterland; his escape from Nazi-occupied France; His later expeditions to visit remote tribes in the Amazon; and an assortment of observations about such diverse topics as the frustration of the traveler to never encounter the true, pristine state of a culture, the Indian caste system and the division of public and private space in different parts of the world. The book is full of fascinating anecdotes: My favorite one is how a native chief from observing Levy-Strauss grasped the social importance of writing, but not its role in information storage and transmission. He bluffed to impress his underlings and drew freshly invented line configurations on a paper. This leads Levy-Strauss to observe that from the invention of writing to its universal knowledge a few millennia passed, during which it did not serve to liberate the masses, but to control them. Such wide-ranging philosophical associations are frequent and were very enjoyable to me. The book is, however, definitely not only a collection of anecdotes, but in parts a very detailed description of the life of some of the native tribes he visited in the Amazon. Drawings of artifacts, patterns used in body-painting and photographs supplement the text. We are given both anthropological descriptions of the lifes of these peoples, their social organization, attitudes and material culture, as well as Levy-Strauss' personal experiences when living among them, sometimes his friendships with members of these tribes. Of course these people were strongly affected by the contact with European civilization, often to the worse. We also learn about these developments. There isn't really much direct explanation about his theoretical approaches to anthropology. This is the kind of book which made me wish that I could have been an expedition member of Levy-Strauss' team. Highly recommended.