Réquiem por un campesino español


If Francisco Ayala’s La cabeza del cordero skirts the question of causes–and indeed, perhaps, of causality itself–preferring to see the civil war as an absurd irruption of violence that comes almost from nowhere, Ramón Sender’s Réquiem for un campesino español is, by contrast, all about origins. So much so, indeed, that his book, too, ends up stopping short of addressing the war directly.

The story is told in flashback and counterpoint. A priest, Mosén Millán, is preparing to give the requiem mass for a young man–Paco el del Molino–who was killed a year previously. The church is empty save for an altar boy who flits around, humming or singing almost under his breath the ballad that has apparently already converted del Molino into a popular hero. Meanwhile, the priest thinks back over the intersections between Paco’s life and his own, as the church is a constant presence in everyone’s lives in this small village, from baptism to wedding and funeral. But never more so than in this case, as we gradually learn, and the story of Paco del Molino becomes the story of Millán himself. No wonder the book bore his name as its title when originally published, for it is less about the downfall of the young campesino than it is about the failures of the church.

Paco el del Molino had been an altar boy in his time, and one day accompanied Millán on a pastoral visit to a gravely ill man in need of the last rites. But in Paco’s eyes, at least, it turns out that the man needed far more than this: for the visit takes the priest and his assistant to a scene of extreme poverty, where the people live in caves, with little more than rags to their name. Asking Millán about why such misery should exist and what might be done about it, Paco gets decidedly short shrift: “That’s how life is, and God has made it so for his own reasons” (38). For the boy, this isn’t good enough.

But the times they are changing, and these changes affect even the most remote of villages. Some years later, elections are called and Paco is at the forefront of a group of councilors determined to fix some age-old injustices. They refuse to pay the absentee landlord for the right to graze their animals on his land. “What men have made, men can unmake,” he takes the liberty of telling the landlord’s majordomo (75). The entire social hierarchy, from the monarchy down, seems to be tottering as men and women like Paco start to question the unwritten customs that perpetuate gross inequality. The village is abuzz.

The reaction is swift, sharp, and ruthless. Hired thugs come from the city and a massacre ensues. Only Paco has the sense or quick-wittedness to make good his escape and go into hiding. But this is where the long, intertwined history between the priest and his former acolyte, between the church and the people, reaches its tragic dénouement. For it is Millán who discovers the location of the rebel’s hideout, and gives it up to those in his pursuit. He even is persuaded to speak to del Molino in person, to convince him to give himself up. He does so on condition that the fugitive will be given a fair trial, but he must know as well as anyone that such promises from the landlords men are worthless. Sure enough, before long the priest is forced to witness as they take the young man off for summary execution. And his response to Paco’s pleas now are as inadequate as his attitude to the cave-dwellers was before: “Yes, my son. You are all innocent. But what can I do?” (101). His “son” dies with the name of his spiritual father on his lips: “He turned me in… Mosén Millán, Mosén Millán” (104).

A year later, waiting for the mass to start, in a church empty of all but the altar boy and his ballad plus (belatedly) representatives of the very men who put Paco to death, the priest has plenty of time to consider his betrayal.

As an allegory of the war as a whole, Sender’s tale is reductive and one-sided. For one thing, this is a conflict without any actual fighting: Paco gets a couple of rounds off at his pursuers, but leaves them with no more than the lightest of injuries. The people are the purest of victims; their oppressors, the purest of victimizers. Yet strangely the church is allowed the virtue of at least embarrassment and regret for its failure to protect its flock. Which is why it is better to stress that this is a story of origins, a description of deep injustice and the sanctioned violence that kept it in place. No wonder people would go on to fight (in fact) tenaciously for the Republican side, inspired in part by the ballads telling of folk heroes such as del Molino. But in the end this novella is no more revealing than such a ballad, with its caricature villains and easy moral lessons. Surely the war deserves more than this.

La cabeza del cordero

La cabeza del cordero

It may seem strange that the first story in La cabeza del coerdero, Francisco Ayala’s collection of short stories about the Spanish civil war, has, at first sight, nothing to do with the war itself. It concerns, rather, an encounter between two cousins, one of whom tells the other of a strange manuscript whose writing cannot be deciphered. Anticlimactically, however, the mystery is left unresolved as the two men part before they can even locate the piece of paper in question. The “message” that gives the story its title is oblique at best. We may end up wondering if it even exists, or if it is not merely an invention of fervent imagination and small-town gossip in what is depicted as a backwater in which little of real import ever happens.

But “El mensaje” sets the tone for what follows, not least in making clear that ten years on (the book’s first edition came out, in Argentina, in 1949), it was still hard to imagine approaching the conflict directly or unequivocally. Indeed, only one of the subsequent tales (“El Tajo”) is set during the war itself, and even here we are a long way from the main event, on a quiet front on which there is no actual fighting. The story’s protagonist, a Lieutenant Santolalla, describes his experience of the war in terms of “an empty, useless period of waiting, that at first brought to the mouth the delicious taste of holidays in the distant past and that later, even its darkest hours, he had learned to endure [. . .] as one of life’s many inconveniences, like some kind of temporary illness, a flu about which you could do nothing but wait until it went away of its own accord” (116). Ayala is not telling us that this is what the war was like–though it’s worth being reminded that every war has its lulls and its longueurs. But it is about as close as he can take us to the violence itself. For all of a sudden, pretty much out of nowhere, comes a brief moment of senseless destruction that will haunt Santolalla for years to come.

So a second theme that we now see that “El mensaje” has introduced is the notion of unpredictability: throughout the stories, characters are constantly surprised, constantly made aware that their best guesses of what is around the corner are profoundly misguided. In the title story, “La cabeza del cordero,” for instance, a traveller has no sooner installed himself in his hotel in Fez, Morocco, than he finds that his arrival is apparently expected by remote relatives of whose very existence he had been utterly unaware. Or in “El regreso,” a man returning to Spain after a period of exile in Argentina comes up with a series of hypotheses about the fate of his former best friend and his family, only to be taken aback by the one eventuality that he had failed to consider. In each case, moreover, these surprises don’t bear further examination: the cousin in “El mensaje” takes the first bus out of town; the traveller in Fez resolves to move on as quickly as possible to Marrakesh; and the returning exile in “El regreso” turns his back and “on the way made the decision–that I would delay carrying out no more than was unavoidable–of returning to Buenos Aires” (184). Initial curiosity, in other words, turns very soon to revulsion or denial.

La cabeza del cordero, in other words, takes on the responsibility of representing the war, but soon finds it absurd, inscrutable, impossible, too traumatic for anything but the gibberish that the character in the final story, “La vida por la opinión,” produces over a long period of hiding. Given the disillusion, disappointment, and distress, better perhaps “Not to think about anything.” “As if,” Ayala immediately reminds us–and perhaps himself–“it were possible not to think about anything” (245).

La utopía en ruinas

Ahora será convertido

Presentado en el I Simposio de la Sección de Estudios del Cono Sur (LASA)
Santiago de Chile, agosto de 2015

“La utopía en ruinas: el hospital Ochagavía”

una ruina incompleta

Parece superfluo llamar a una ruina “incompleta”: ¿no es parte de la definición misma de ruina ser una estructura a la que le falta algo? Una ruina siempre debe perderse la plenitud: está descompuesta, desintegrada, deteriorada, destruida, imperfecta. De ahí el énfasis abrumador en la negatividad o negación (en todos los sentidos de la palabra) en la mayoría de las reflexiones sobre ruinas: se asocian con la pérdida, con la nostalgia, con la ausencia, con todas las formas en las cuales la ruina no llega a estar completa. Una y otra vez, el acento se pone en lo que no está, en lo que falta y solo puede evocarse con la imaginación o la memoria. En el mejor de los casos, la ruina evoca fantasmas, espectros, sueños o promesas: complementos insustanciales de su materialidad bruta e inútil. Una ruina es una estructura que tiene que completarse por otros medios: a través del discurso, de la narración, de los relatos. Parece pedir la intervención de la arqueología, la historia o la política para que nos cuenten lo que significan esos fragmentos, cuál es el todo al cual no pueden unirse por sí mismos. De hecho, una ruina solamente se convierte en ruina (en vez de una serie de partes desvinculadas) una vez ha sido asumida por esas formas discursivas. Al estar incompletas, las ruinas no pueden hablar por sí mismas y tienen que ser explicadas; requieren un suplemento que les asegure su representabilidad. Necesitan algo más. De este modo es cómo las ruinas vienen a ser la imagen misma de la dependencia de lo material en lo inmaterial, de la promesa narrativa de compensar la pérdida por otros medios, de la subordinación de lo real al mundo. Es la imagen misma de la hegemonía, del modo en que los fragmentos disociados se articulan en una cadena significante para dar la ilusión de totalidad.

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Utopia in Ruins

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Presented at the “I Simposio de la Sección de Estudios del Cono Sur (LASA)”
Santiago de Chile, August 2015

“Utopia in Ruins: The Ochagavía Hospital”

an incomplete ruin

It would seem superfluous to call a ruin “incomplete”: is it not part of the very definition of a ruin that it is a structure that somehow lacks something? A ruin must always miss out on plenitude: it is decayed, disintegrated, deteriorated, destroyed, imperfect. Hence the overwhelming stress on negativity or negation (in all senses of the term) in most reflections on ruination: ruins are associated with loss, with nostalgia, with absence, with all the ways in which the ruin falls short of completion. Over and over, the focus is on what is not there, what is missing and can only be conjured up through the imagination or memory. At best, the ruin conjures up ghosts, specters, dreams, or promises: insubstantial complements to its brute and senseless materiality. A ruin is a structure that has to be completed by other means: through discourse, narrative, story-telling. It seems to ask for the intervention of archaeology, history, or politics to tell us what these fragments mean, what is the whole to which on their own they do not quite add up. Indeed, a ruin only truly becomes a ruin (rather than a series of disaggregated parts) once it is taken up by such discursive formations. It is because they are incomplete that ruins cannot speak for themselves and have to be spoken for; they demand a supplement that will ensure their representability. They demand something else. This is how the ruin comes to appear the very figure of the dependency of the material on the immaterial, of narrative’s promise to make up for loss by some other means, of the subordination of the real to the word. It is the very figure of hegemony, of the way in which discrete fragments are taken up in larger signifying chains to give the illusion of wholeness.

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This Fall, I’m teaching “Introduction to Latin American Studies.” I’ve taught it before, but the twist this time is that I have some money to make videos to illustrate and enhance the course.

There will be three types of videos: 1) “instructor videos,” or mini-lectures that I write and deliver; 2) conversations with colleagues and others on specific topics; 3) student-made videos.

Everything will be made available (via YouTube) with a CC-BY-NC license. This means that anybody can re-use and even remake the material, so long as they attribute the original source, and so long as they don’t use them for commercial purposes.

They are far from perfect (we’re not professionals), but I’m pretty pleased with how they’re turning out so far. Each one gets a little better, at least in technical terms, I think, even though we also find ways to add new glitches we’d barely considered before.

We’ll have to wait, of course, for the student-made videos, but here are the first few instructor videos and conversations:

Instructor videos:

  1. Where is Latin America?
  2. The Meeting of Two Worlds
  3. The Colonial Experience


  1. Hugo Chávez in Context, with Max Cameron
  2. Modernity and Modernization in Mexico, with Alec Dawson
  3. The Mexican Revolution, with Alec Dawson

Wikipedia and Higher Education


Jon Beasley-Murray
University of British Columbia

Presented at Wikimania, July 2015, Mexico City

“Two Solitudes: Wikipedia and Higher Education”

It is an institution on the verge of crisis, though not everyone is prepared to admit it. With a bloated bureaucracy that’s increasingly brought in from outside and ever-more out of touch with the rank and file that do most of the work, it seems to have lost its sense of purpose. Founded with noble goals, dedicated to the public good and enlightenment ideals of knowledge and global understanding, it now finds itself in an climate dominated by for-profit corporations that claim to be able to offer the same or similar services as it provides, but more efficiently and effectively. It doesn’t know whether to remodel itself along the lines of these commercial competitors or keep closer to its historic roots. The situation is hardly helped by periodic scandals that erupt and are seized on by adversaries in the media, who accuse it of corruption and bias. Its heavy-handed response to these scandals hardly aids its cause, and issues around civility, freedom of expression, or gender and other disparities are a flashpoint for conflict and discontent. Low morale and petty but energy-sapping disputes are just one outcome of a crisis in governance. It has tried to deal with these problems through technical fixes and better metrics, more accountability and accessibility. It is increasingly concerned about its public face and does what it can to allow its users to bypass its often arcane practices and have a smoother, more enjoyable experience. But ultimately these are short-term solutions that if anything only hide the real problems. Pushed this way and that, much misunderstood and maligned, but still performing a vital role upon which almost everyone depends, this is an organization that desperately needs to take stock and put its house in order.

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Roa Bastosmachine


Presented at LASA 2015
San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 2015

“Roa Bastosmachine: Explosiveness and Multitude in the Boom”

This is the third of a trio of essays, at present in varying states of completion, in which I explore the relationship between Latin American literature and posthegemony. Each of the three is dedicated to a distinct aspect of posthegemony, though collectively they are united by an interest in machines and the machinic. Hence with their titles I appropriate the formulation of East German playwright Heiner Müller, whose Hamletmachine is a well-known recasting and reinvention of Shakespeare. The other two essays are “Arguedasmachine” (on affect) and “Borgesmachine” (on habit). Together, these essays are also intended to constitute a re-reading of the Latin American canon, and so to suggest that posthegemony is far from being a marginal aspect of literary production, but rather a central and ineludible feature of the so-called mainstream. For there is, of course, no hegemony and never has been.

Boom! Already the name itself of Latin America’s most famous and influential literary movement indicates unpredictability, disruption, and not a little violence. The pity is that it was so quickly and so easily defused, domesticated, captured. Boom! Already the name itself is transcultural, transculturated, transculturating: an English term to describe a phenomenon with global ramifications, from Buenos Aires to Barcelona; Paris, Mexico City, New York. And yet the movement’s key texts are still read in regionalist or localist terms, as national allegories or tales of underdevelopment. Boom! Already the name itself is onomatopoeic rather than signifying, interjection rather than sign: it does not so much refer to something elsewhere, as instantiate and reproduce an sensation here and now; its impact is intense and affective, a matter of feeling and the body rather than interpretation or consent. And yet our reading of the movement’s authors is endlessly wrapped up in issues of representation and representativity. Boom! Already with the name itself there is nothing natural or organic here, rather an explosion that shatters boundaries and sows disorder with immediate effect, before we even have time to catch our breath. It is a mad machine, or volatile conjunction of machinery, that works always by breaking down, in fits and starts, setting off a chain reaction that multiplies and resonates with an entire multitude. What a mistake to have ever said the Boom, as though it were once and once only. Boom! As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari put it in another context, “Everywhere it is machines [. . .] machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections” (). Everywhere they fire and discharge, detonate and recompose something new from the pieces. Boom! Boom! BOOM!

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