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28 september 2017

Literally the first sentence of Helen Cowie's Llama appears to be incorrect. "All South American camelids belong to the genus Lama," she writes (10), and then names four species that belong to two genera: Lama and Vicugna. A minor fault in an otherwise engaging book, but unusually salient.

Cowie's book is mostly about real llamas – well, you might expect that in a book titled Llama, but others in the wonderful Reaktion Animal series are disproportionately about cultural and symbolic versions of their title beasts. Llamas, however, have little symbolic currency outside their Andean homeland. And what we can discern about the importance of llamas to indigenous South Americans is largely filtered through Catholic Spanish colonizers. The existence of conopas, for instance, the small "llama and alpaca-shaped fetishes" (45) that Conquest-era Andeans kept as a sort of lares et penates, is tantalizing, and incomplete: these little llama statuettes "were confiscated on a large scale by Spanish missionaries following the conquest in an attempt to eradicate idolatry" (45), so we will never fully understand their importance.

Llamas were undeniably important to Andeans as all-purpose domesticated animals, and remain (along with guinea pigs) among the New World's major contributions to the stock of worldwide domesticates. Natives used the llama and the alpaca for wool, burden, hides, and food; in fact, llamas and alpacas (as opposed to vicuña and guanaco) do not truly exist in the wild anymore – in this respect, also like guinea pigs.

Llamas are such useful beasts that Europeans couldn't wait to import them. Large-scale acclimatization projects began soon after contact. Most early ones failed: some llama species can be fussy about temperature and altitude. It took perseverance and selective breeding to find stocks that populate substantial llama herds that now exist across Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Cowie's Llama is a very useful case study of the mania exhibited by Europeans and Euro- Americans and Oceanians for acclimatization projects, many of which have entailed unintended consequences. But llamas have been fairly benign as introduced species go. Wool is the main attraction, and still at a premium. But llamas, good-natured on the whole, can also be used as petting-zoo and therapy animals. And they are excellent in the role of guards. They can't do much to intruders except spit on them, but they are large enough to scare away coyotes and foxes, and their spit is nothing to be trifled with. High-test llama spit consists of llama vomit, and is almost impossible to wash out of your clothes – or, if you're a coyote, out of your fur.

Some children's literature features llamas, and they appear in the fiction of Mario Vargas Llosa, the greatest Peruvian novelist. Cowie cites the only llama poem I know of, a short one by Ogden Nash that she apparently can't quote in full for fear of copyright infringement, a fear that has not slowed down many a blogger. She appends another in the public domain, by Hillaire Belloc ("The Llama is a woolly sort of fleecy hairy goat," 157).

If an animal appears in Shakespeare or a popular song, I generally remember it, but there are no llamas in works of the Bard. They hadn't fetched up in England yet, and if Shakespeare had heard of them second-hand, he wasn't about to put them even in the more fanciful reports of Othello. My partner points out that Voltaire was better-acquainted with the creatures, and may have meant Candide's moutons rouges to be llamas, or perhaps the more reddish guanacos.

For Jimmy Van Heusen's "Come Fly with Me," lyricist Sammy Cahn imagined a fanciful kingdom that Candide would have approved of:

Come fly with me, we'll float down to Peru
In llama-land there's a one-man band
And he'll toot his flute for you
I guess that will remain the high-water-mark of the llama in the American songbook for the foreseeable future.

Cowie, Helen. Llama. London: Reaktion, 2017.