El mundo es ancho y ajeno I

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Almost exactly halfway through Ciro Alegría’s renowned El mundo es ancho y ajeno comes a turning point, as the indigenous community that are the Peruvian novel’s focus are forced to leave their village of Rumi, in the northern highlands. This day has long been coming, as the culmination of a fabricated legal claim from a neighbouring landlord (named Don Alvaro Amenábar), but also as the latest stage in the centuries-old and apparently inexorable process of what Marx called primitive accumulation and what geographer David Harvey terms accumulation by dispossession. Lands held in common are enclosed and privatized; the people once tied to these lands are then “freed” to become wage labourers, in this case for a mining project that the landlord hopes to establish nearby. Backed by the force of the state and a legal system shown to be absolutely corrupt, capital assimilates and privatizes common goods as it undoes social structures that have existed since time immemorial.

Alegría stresses the indigenous people’s relationship to the the earth, not least in a lyrical chapter devoted to the maize and wheat harvests, which concludes that “community life acquires a palpable air of peace and uniformity and takes on its true meaning in its work on the land. Sowing, cultivation, and harvest are the veritable axis of its existence” (159). To be torn from their lands, then, implies the death of the community. And yet there are already signs of a capacity (and willingness) to change and adapt: their mayor, Rosendo Maqui, has led a project to construct a school: “Then we’ll be able to send the best kids to study… So that they may be doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers… We desperately need Indians who can listen to us, who can teach us and defend us” (154). So another side of the tragedy of their forced dispossession is that the community also have to abandon the half-built schoolhouse. But if they can rebuild and encourage at least some of the next generation to abandon the land, they might ensure that in the future they (or other indigenous communities) might win the right to stay put.

As well as being the tale of the community en masse, Alegría’s novel also takes advantage of frequent digressions to tell the stories of the people who comprise it or come in and out. For instance, there is a whole minor subplot about Rosendo Maqui’s grandson, Augusto, and his tentative flirtation with a young shepherdess called Marguicha. There is Nasha Suro, the witch or fortune teller, whose father had also been credited with special powers and who had once cured the landlord’s father. Or there is the unlikely pairing of sober villager Doroteo Quispe, known for his prayers, and the bandit El Fiero Vásquez, who bonds with Quispe in his eagerness to learn one of this prayers. Then there is the travelling salesman, El Mágico, who turns out to use his mobility and knowledge of the community to spy for Don Alvaro.

The central figure is perhaps Rosendo himself, the wise leader who is described early on as a “man with traces of mountain” (12). Maqui calls the community to order and negotiates on their behalf in the local town, at the same time as he tries to keep tabs on what the Amenábar is up to. As such, he both records and organizes the struggle against the process by which the community is dispossessed. But there is something more. We are also told that, with his wife, he has adopted a child born to a local woman impregnated by a passing soldier during the War of the Pacific. This son, named Benito Castro and now grown up, is doubly distant from Rosendo’s lineage: both adopted and mestizo (mixed). Over the course of the narrative of the first half of the book, he is (to boot) almost entirely absent from the community. But it is suggested that the circumstances in which he left Rumi were a matter of disgrace affecting Rosendo as much as Benito himself: the “austere mayor” scarcely wants to remember the “one time” that he had “given up being just” (34). Here, the shadowy narrative voice that crops up periodically as the book proceeds now appeals directly to the novel’s readers, promising that all will be revealed in good time, and establishing Castro’s absence as a trauma haunting the entire first half of the narrative.

At this moment of crisis or point of inflection, then, it is no doubt time for the prodigal (step)son to return.

Chotti Munda and His Arrow

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“All’s a story in Chotti Munda’s life,” we’re told near the beginning of Mahasweta Devi’s Chotti Munda and His Arrow, a novel that tells of the eponymous Chotti and his Munda village across seven decades in colonial and postcolonial West Bengal. “Munda language has no script. So they turn significant events into story, and hold them as saying, as song. That’s their history as well” (18). But this is a history that has often gone untold. The Munda people are among the so-called Tribals or Adivasi, the indigenous groups that make up almost 10% of India’s population but remain at the margins (at best) of the country’s national imaginary. Devi’s novel thus rescues an alternative history that troubles and even subverts the official narrative, revealing its blindspots and silences.

Not the least of this book’s subversions is the fact that it forcefully refuses any gesture towards national allegory. Whereas, say, Saleem Sinai, protagonist of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, is born symbolically at the precise moment of India’s independence, Chotti Munda is born much more prosaically sometime at the beginning of the twentieth century. Which means that he is almost fifty when the Indian state comes into being on August 15, 1947. But the event hardly enters into his story; independence is a matter for the “Dikus,” the Hindu majority who impinge on the Mundas’ world as landowners, merchants, and shopkeepers. “The August movement did not even touch the life of Chotti’s community. It was as if that was the Dikus’ struggle for liberation. Dikus never thought of the adivasis as Indian. They did not draw them into the liberation struggle.” Yet on the other hand this makes the Tribal perspective a rather good one for assessing the achievements (or otherwise) of the nation-state, given that the adivasis “stand at a distance and watch it all” (96). Among the stories told here, then, is the story of India; what the novel refuses is the way in which allegory enforces an identification between character (and reader) and nation. However much it imitates the myth-making tendencies of folklore, and despite (or even because of) its keen interest in the workings of culture and power, the history told in Chotti Munda and His Arrow is posthegemonic.

Chotti himself has an ambivalent relationship to the story-telling and myth-making that surround him. As a teenager, against family warnings, he is drawn to Dhani Munda, his sister’s grandfather-in-law, who has fame as a rebel (he passes on the history of Birsa Munda’s late nineteenth-century revolt against the British) and as an archer. No one else wants to hear the old man’s stories, so Chotti becomes their guardian when he asks Dhani to teach him to shoot arrows; and by doing so he also “becomes a part of the epic” (7). When Dhani dies, killed by the colonial police for breaking an order expelling him from the region, Chotti takes on his legacy and earns a reputation as an archer with a magic arrow who wins tournaments at every local fair. He finds he now has the “responsibility of keeping alive the legend that is growing up around him as he wins stake after stake. But he hadn’t wanted to be the hero of legend” (32-3), and he resists the notion that there is anything supernatural or magic about his prowess. The secret, he tells anyone who asks, is simply repetition, practice: “That practisin’ is t’spell” (25). And this is the lesson that he later passes on to a younger generation in turn, that they can reshape their bodies through practice, habitual adaptation to the bow: “Spell, spell, all see me spell. Look at me hand man, hard wit’ pullin’ t’ bowstring. I practice all t’ time. Will ye?” (50).

(Devi’s translator, Gayatri Spivak, renders Munda speech in English with an odd patois that seems to be half African American, half Yorkshire. This works in so far as it is a constant reminder of linguistic and cultural difference; the reader–this reader, at least–is always set slightly on edge. But much fluency is also lost, especially given how much the novel relies on dialogue. It is as though the Mundas are perpetually either slightly taciturn or strangely stuttering, even when talking among themselves.)

Chotti thus becomes an agent of continuity and tradition over a seventy-five year period (three generations) in which everything changes and yet nothing changes. Everything changes in that, beyond the departure of the British and the transition to independence, modernity and economic development also transform even this relatively remote landscape of rivers and forests. The railway comes, and even if the train doesn’t always stop, it means “modernity, power, machine” (49). The station is enlarged and Chotti notes that “everything seemed to be changing with the Mundas” (107). Eventually, the arrival of motorcars and movies confirm that the village enters “the modern age” (222). Meanwhile, “the Mundas and lowcastes of Chotti village enter the national economic pattern of independent India” (140) and capitalist relations of commodification and wage labour replace traditional communal ties: “The day is coming. Mundas will not be able to live with their identity. [. . .] Then there’ll be a shirt on his body, perhaps shoes on his feet. Then the ‘Munda’ identity will live only in festivals–in social exchange” (110). Not that the Tribals are simply unwilling victims of these transformations: when feudal, bonded labour is banished it is the landowner who finds himself stuck in the past as his workforce demand that the new law is enforced, and refuse to collect the harvest otherwise, much against his wishes.

If Chotti is not particularly sentimental about the transformations he witnesses (and in fact encourages) over the course of his long lifetime, it is perhaps because in other ways so little changes. In the final, violent showdown over the shift from bonded to wage labour, two agents of the Youth Congress who have been instrumental in repressing the Naxalite insurgency under Indira Ghandi’s State of Exception, the “Emergency,” are killed in the forest. One, named Romeo, had been especially brutal. But when he is killed, and as Chotti Munda considers the inevitable police reaction to come, “terror like we’ve never seen” (285), the narrator muses that “There are adivasis, there are subcastes, the Romeos kill them, it happens like this. But if one or a few adivasis kill the Romeos it is an unexpected event. The Romeos kill, they are not killed. This is the rule. Under all regimes” (283). And though this is in some ways a disheartening observation, in that there seems no end to the villagers’ subaltern status, it is also a source of some comfort: the adivasis will endure this injustice, as they have endured so many before. Or as the outcaste (“untouchable”), Chhagan puts it to Chotti when they go down to the riverbank to discuss the latest crisis, “All’s changed. [. . .] But t’ river’s t’ same.” To which Chotti, who himself is named after the river and is almost as unperturbable, responds: “Nothing’s changed. Just t’ pressure’s on t’ rise” (276).

At the novel’s conclusion, this identification between Chotti and the river becomes explicit, as does the notion that the subaltern is outside of history, not because history has left them behind but more because they see things from the perspective of eternity. At a village festival, in the tense aftermath of the killing of the Youth Congress members, Chotti revives memories of the past as he steps forward to compete in the archery contest. But first he takes a megaphone and, in front of the local administrator as well as the whole community, shoulders the blame for the murders so as to forestall further violence. Then he invokes his former teacher, who six decades earlier had taught him both the art of the bow and arrow and the language of rebellion, as he

says fast in the language of the Mundas, Dhani Munda! I’m raisin’ yer name an’ shootin’ yer arrer today. To stay true, meself to meself.

Chotti comes before the target with light and fast footsteps. And tells everyone, No fear y’all. Then he shoots, into the target.

Then he waits, unarmed. As he waits he mingles with all time and becomes river, folklore, eternal. What only the human can be. Brings all adivasi struggle into the present, today into the united struggle of the adivasi and the outcaste.

The novel’s final lines see Chotti still waiting to see the administrator’s reaction, as “a thousand adivasis raise their bows,” a multitude pronouncing “a warning announced in many upraised hands” (288), a declaration from outside of history that this time, perhaps, history itself may change for good, and a new story be told.

Contrabando

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Víctor Hugo Rascón Banda’s Contrabando tells the story of a playwright and scriptwriter living in Mexico City, much like Rascón Banda himself, who returns to his childhood home of Santa Rosa in the northern state of Chihuahua. He has to write a script, and what better place than this remote former mining village? “You’ll be able to rest, sleep in as long as you like, far from the hubbub of that awful metropolis,” his mother promises him in a letter. “You’ll have the time to write, uninterrupted.” And her son agrees: “here, where there is no electricity or telephone, I can stumble upon the ghosts that become characters and the rumors that turn into plots. All I have to do is go down to the river and listen to the washerwomen [. . .] or pop into the billiard hall and see how the balls run into each other on the green felt to break the tedium” (24).

What the narrator discovers, however, is anything but a rural idyll. It turns out that “death arrived in Santa Rosa, and now it doesn’t want to leave” (97). The place is full of ghosts all right, as well as characters, rumors, and plots. But whatever story he hopes to write is constantly interrupted by other stories, of violence, revenge, and betrayal, that urgently need telling but somehow cannot (yet) be told.

One after another, the tales that this book tells reveal a reality that has yet to make its way to the capital. “There they know nothing,” says one of the first people that the narrator meets, a woman called Damiana Caraveo, on the road to Santa Rosa. Caraveo is described as “the very image of a mournful death, or of the soul in pain of a woman still unburied” (12). Learning that she is talking to a writer (though disappointed that he doesn’t write corridos, the popular songs of the region), she bids his attention: “Just look, though they should know. Here in the Sierra, something bad happened, a whole lot of killing or whatever you want to call it” (12-13). And she proceeds to describe a skirmish in which twenty-four people (including most of her family) were killed, for which she was framed and then jailed as the putative leader of a drug-trafficking gang. Yet having told her side of things, Caraveo wonders why she has bothered: “As for my version of what happened [. . .] why am I telling it, what’s the point? Who’s going to believe me?” (22). And yet she carries on with her narrative, as though in the vain hope that there may be someone to hear her.

Indeed, the stories tumble out, twenty-three of them in total, like a chain reaction: each title picking up on a phrase from the sentence of the story that precedes it. So the final line in Camaveo’s tale is “I remembered the reasons for my voyage,” and the next story is “The Reasons for my Voyage,” which ends with the declaration “I am Jacinta, Jacinta Primera,” in turn setting up the story “Jacinta Primera.” And so on, until the last word of the final tale, which is “contrabando,” looping us back to the title of the book itself.

The various segments of this tightly woven chain, however, often take very diverse forms, with a host of different narrators or none at all: there are first-person narratives, testimonio-style, in the voice of rural peasants; there are the diary-like accounts of the Mexico City scriptwriter, the apparently autobiographical presence of Rascón Banda himself; there is dialogue, stream of consciousness, an open letter “to whom it may concern” that turns out to be a suicide note; there is a playscript, and ultimately also a filmscript, apparently the text that the narrator came to Santa Rosa to write. Each one is laced with the fear, uncertainty, and tragedy of a world in which everyday life has been turned upside down by new flows of capital, new fluctuations of allegiance, and new forms of killing as the drug trade takes hold.

Running through the disparate vignetts are some narrative repetitions and continuities. In particular, we follow the disjoint mystery of the narrator’s cousin, Julián, the town’s mayor, who has disappeared a couple of days before the writer arrives. It looks increasingly as though he has been kidnapped. But by whom? The traffickers or the police? The problem is that it is hard to distinguish the two. Sometimes, in the aftermath of one incident or another, you cannot tell if those involved were “narcos with police ID or police disguised as narcos” (87). And whether for reasons of subtefuge, betrayal, or a pragmatic attempt to survive in an increasingly slippery social landscape, people shift between the different sides such that it is misleading to talk even of “sides” at all: “Nobody knew who was who, local or stranger, poor or rich, narco or authority” (103) But everyone is someone; nobody can escape. Though we never learn Julián’s fate, and he and the narrator never cross paths, at one point it is suggested that the writer’s arrival, even though it took place after his cousin’s disappearance, was somehow to blame:

Julián’s kidnapping, said my uncle grasping me by an arm, has to do with you and these papers. [. . .] Worse still, he added in a serious voice, looking me in the eyes, we could say that you are in part guilty of what happened to Julián. No, not in part, he corrected himself, you are the sole reason why my son is disappeared. Why the Hell did you have to come and screw us over, if we were at peace here. (112)

In the insistent chain of reasons and causes, the narrator suddenly finds himself bound fast. Like everyone else, he is unknowingly responsible in a world in which agency is everything, because you have to be continually on your toes, even as it is steadily annuled by force of circumstance. As Damiana Caraveo observes, “When things are going to happen, there’s no way to stop them” (17). Caught up in what is repeatedly described as a “nightmare,” Rascón Banda comes to partake in a generalized condition of responsibility without power, guilt without either intent or the possibility of redemption.

At the end of the book the final vignette is a coda, written (we are told) three months after the narrator has left town, having departed only by the skin of his teeth as his driver ran a roadblock and soldiers fired on their car. With his right hand in a cast, he has to write with his left, telling anyone who asks about his injuries that he’s been bitten by a caterpillar, “the kind they have in the Sierra” (208). Meanwhile he receives another letter from his mother, this one much less sanguine than the one that originally invited him home for rest and uninterrupted writing. “I don’t want you to set foot in this town again,” she says. “Here nobody knows who is who. [. . .] Damiana Caraveo is right when she says that you look like a narco or a policeman, which in any case is the same thing. What’s more, you dress like them. It’s not worth you running the risk.” Finally, she tells her son to “Forget what you saw and heard here. Pretend that it was nothing more than a bad dream” (209). And in response the narrator tells us that he “will burn everything that I wrote in Santa Rosa, that’s what I promised my mother” (210).

What is more, it seems that the person who commissioned the screenplay that first motivated the journey north does not much like it: he wanted a love story, rather than a narco revenge narrative. The playscript finds better success: the piece will be put on in Mexico City’s chic Zona Rosa, with a mechanical scenography that will produce “real waves” that the audience can actually touch. Yet the narrator hardly believes this will happen: “They say that in the theatre, plans fall through and never become reality” (211). So Rascón Banda ends the book telling us that, so he can “forget Santa Rosa,” all that remains is for him to type up (literally, “mechanize”; “pasar a máquina”) the lyrics of the corridos that will be played in the show. As Sophie Esch observes, “The man of letters is no longer a writer, just a copyist” (“In the Crossfire: Rascón Banda’s Contrabando and the ‘Narcoliterature’ Debate in Mexico” 172). The rest is silence. Except that the last word takes us back to the book’s title and the sequence starts up once more, like some hellish Groundhog Day replaying the dissolution of the letrado subject in the webs of drug war violence.

In the end, Rascón Banda does and does not keep his narrator’s promise to his mother (and himself) to forget all he has seen and burn all he has written in Santa Rosa. The manuscript of Contrabando won the prestigious Juan Rulfo prize for a first novel in 1991. Yet the book was not published for almost two decades, until after its author’s death in 2008. By the time it belatedly appeared, at the height of President Felipe Calderón’s ill-conceived war on the cartels, the level of drug violence in Mexico had exponentially increased, and the scale of the killing was such that it could no longer be ignored or denied. Perhaps stories like Damiana Caraveo’s could finally be told and find an audience. Or perhaps it is that now the entire country finds itself in the bind of disempowered responsibility that Rascón Banda describes, caught in a deadly cycle of causes and consequences that has no clear endpoint.

Blind Date

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The premise of Blind Date is that Mimi, a thirty-something year old French woman recently arrived in town, has been stood up at a bar. She therefore invites a member of the audience to take on the role of her date for the ninety minutes that follow: at the bar, in a car back to her place, at her apartment, and then (if the rest of the audience decides that this is what they want to see) wherever the two of them end up five years later. Last Thursday, at the Vancouver ArtsClub, I was that audience member brought up on stage.

This was not entirely a surprise. I was aware of the general concept in advance, and open to the possibility of taking part. Before the show was due to begin, the actors (as well as Mimi and her date, there are a couple of other roles to play) circulated through the lobby, chatting to audience members and asking them, and whoever they came with–their “real” dates–whether they were willing to be “maybes” for the evening’s performance. Tess Degenstein, the (magnificent) actress playing Mimi, was already in character, trading smalltalk and probing consent. But it was only after we had taken our seats, and the show had started, that the night’s blind date was called upon.

The essence of the show is improvisation, and the recognition that first dates are always a matter of performance: reacting and responding to the person you are meeting; shaping what is hopefully an attractive image of yourself for them; but also (if things go well) helping them to perform well for you. A date is a joint production, and if it goes well it is because both parties have helped that to happen, and helped the other to make it happen, too. A date is successful if you manage to come close to being the best “you” you can be; but also if you allow the other person to be the best “them.” Here, in the theatre, though, the stakes were doubled: I was not only to perform for Mimi; the two of us were also performing for an audience of which I had been, until very recently, a part. But the part that I was now playing distanced me from them, and I felt a responsibility to put on a good enough show, not least for my (real) date, Fiona. If anything, the stakes were tripled, in that I was of course aware that my partner on stage was also acting, and that I should perform for her by picking up on her cues, as we both (presumably) set out in some way to entertain. Was my performance up to the occasion?

The set-up dealt with the split between the actor and their role by establishing that either of us could call a “time out,” and we would step out of our roles and move to a space to the side of the stage, where we could discuss the ground rules and check in with each other (or the audience). But at the same time, one of the principles of the production was that I should “be myself,” with the one proviso that I should pretend that I was single. Similarly, Degenstein afterwards told me that everything she had revealed about herself during the show was true, with the one exception that she is not, in fact, French. We were both, then, playing ourselves; or rather, our selves at but one remove. But isn’t that always the case on a date, for which one of the most important roles we play is authenticity and honesty, but in which we try to be authentic to the person that we would like to be, or like to be seen as being? And what or who that person is depends often on the feedback provided by our partner, who is playing precisely the same game of aspiring to be true to the person that we would want them to be.

A date then fails not so much because we are not who our partner wants us to be (or vice versa), but when we decide that we do not want to be that person. It fails when we are no longer “maybes,” when we no longer want to perform, and substitute being for becoming.

Again, on stage all this was complicated by an uncertainty about who I was performing to: the character (Mimi); the actress (Tess); or the audience. There were plenty of misfires as the two of us tried to establish a rhythm, to figure out where the other wanted to take things, or where they wanted to be taken.

Like a “real” date, the performance is structured by a tension between spontaneity and habit. On the one hand, the show can go anywhere: every night is different; it stretches the practice of improvisation as each time one of the principal characters is taking part for one performance only; we could take the conversation and the outcome (not least in the coda five years into the future) in almost any direction. On the other hand, that “almost” is important: the show is clearly divided into pre-established scenes and set pieces; characters and situations were introduced to which we had to react, from deciding who would pay the bar bill to who would sit where in Mimi’s apartment; there were pathways to choose between rather than complete freedom of choice. In short, the creativity and innovation of improvisation are constrained not only by your partner or audience, but also by the way-stations and routines that help you manage what would otherwise be an abyss of unlimited possibility. Such habits help to manage uncertainty, in life as much as on stage: there will be a bill; the decision to go home or not; to end the night chastely or otherwise. Customs and conventions circumscribe and help to determine all these decision points. Ultimately, every date (every play) comes to one of a limited set of dénouements: tragedy or comedy; satire or farce.

A few days after going to Blind Date, I watched “Bandersnatch” which, with its “Choose Your Own Adventure” format, also encourages audience participation, giving us all a series of choices to exercise, moments of improvisation and creativity, if along pre-determined pathways. Similarly, the Black Mirror episode is different each time; every viewer has the chance to see or experience something that nobody else experiences. But with the TV show, if you don’t like an outcome you can always go back and try again. Not so with the live performance (and not always so with a date!). I admit that over the past few days I have been repeatedly struck with l’esprit d’escalier: things that I might have said or done that could have been better, wittier, more entertaining, or whatever it was that I was searching to be.

At one point in our onstage conversation, while we were still struggling to find common ground, Mimi (or Tess) said that she enjoyed reading. Still unsure about the distance between character and actor, I expected her to mention something French, but she said that one of her favourites was TS Eliot, specifically The Wasteland. You might think this an admission to kill just about any date, but she went on to explain why: that she liked the poem’s multiplicity of voices, even if she didn’t feel she understood the whole thing. I could have said then (but didn’t; I let the cue drop and, I think, mumbled something indistinct) that Eliot’s working title for the work was “He Do the Police in Different Voices”. Which is in turn one of Eliot’s many allusions and references, in this case to Dickens and Our Mutual Friend, to a performance conjured up by one of that novel’s characters from the most mundane and routine of occasions: reading the newspaper; “And I do love a newspaper. You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.” With these voices or voicings, as well as with all the other citations and references that pepper Eliot’s poem and make it, indeed, so intimidating and difficult, is an attempt to give a sense of life and wonder to the everyday, to keep us on our toes and think critically about the roles we are constantly performing so that they are not completely overtaken by habit.

Blind Date is not The Wasteland. Far from it, and that is no doubt a good thing, too. But I liked the way in which playful improvisation and high modernism briefly and unexpectedly met in that moment, in a space of equally unlikely and apparently contradictory encounters: between performance and authenticity, innovation and habit. Because in the end that is what we want from a date: a flicker of improbable and eye-opening connection; a surprise or two, just as Mimi (and perhaps Tess), and the audience (and definitely I), had no idea what we were getting into.

The Long Night of White Chickens

Too many novels in English about Latin America are disappointing. Sometimes that is because they try too hard to mimic the magical realism that is supposed to be the signature trait of the region’s literary culture. An egregious example would be Louis de Bernières’s “comic” first novel, The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts. Other times the problem is that the writer over-earnestly tries to show the impact of political violence on men and women who are portrayed as pure victims, nobly struggling for their rights until they are senselessly cut down by state terror. In the Belly of the Horse leans in this direction. Either way, such representations portray the region in terms of simple alterity: exotic or abject.

goldman_long-nightFrancisco Goldman’s The Long Night of White Chickens dodges both traps, even though its title seems to promise some kind of sub-García Márquez fare and its theme, a murder investigation at the height of Guatemala’s dirty war, might indicate anguished pleas for social justice. But it turns out that the “long night of the white chickens” is something of a MacGuffin, a plot device to incite intrigue that ultimately does not really matter in itself. The plot’s focus constantly shifts, as rumors swirl and hopes are raised and then dashed in a country in which (we are repeatedly told) everything is uncertain and nobody is to be trusted. And in some ways even the murder that drives so much of the narrative is a red herring. Classic detective stories tell the tale of social order disrupted by violent death and then restored by means of the private eye’s rational deductions and clear-sighted refusal to be deceived or distracted. Here, we come to see that solving the murder mystery would bring us no closer to resolving the problem of Guatemala’s endemic violence, corruption, and chaos. If anything, the investigation only makes things worse. So we are not surprised that at the end, when the truth that he has long been seeking appears finally to be in sight, the narrator simply gives up and goes home.

Yet the concept of “home” is complicated in Goldman’s book. The narrator in question, Roger Graetz, is the son of a Guatemalan mother and a (Jewish) American father, who grows up near Boston but is regularly sent down to take summer school in a private academy in Guatemala City. The murder victim, Flor de Mayo Puac, takes an opposite trajectory: plucked from a Guatemalan orphanage by Graetz’s maternal grandmother, she is raised with Roger in New England in an uncertain role that is neither exactly family member nor precisely maid; she returns to Guatemala where she comes to direct an orphanage of her own, but after her death Roger and his father take her body to be buried in the USA. It is then the third of the trio of major characters who is the most fully Guatemalan: Luis Moya was once a friend of Roger’s at the academy, becomes a celebrated but controversial journalist, gets to know Flor shortly before her death and helps Roger in his quest to track down her killer but even he cannot stay as in the end he is forced into exile in Mexico. Indeed, with its running themes of travel, adoption, migration, and exile, the novel puts dislocation center stage and asks us to consider the relations between these different forms of displacement.

My student Upasana Thakkar has recently finished a dissertation in which she comments on the links between this novel and the testimonio genre. Guatemala is, after all, the land of Rigoberta Menchú. And among the travellers to Guatemala are a procession of “Sweet Sisters of Solidarity” (323), such as the “singular and exceptional Laura Moore” who would return home “with her suitcases packed with the cassette recordings and typed testimonies of victims who [. . .] no matter how much their tragic tales resembled the hundreds of others Laura had already discreetly listened to and transcribed, always made actual warm tears slide down from her reddened blue eyes” (375). This is the easy affect that Goldman tries to avoid. He is skeptical about how much you can learn about someone and their situation simply from letting them speak–and asks us who benefits from such displays of solidarity.

The titular “long night of the white chickens,” for instance, turns out to refer to an evening of intense conversation between Moya and Flor. Over dinner and rum at a Chinese restaurant, the two of them seem to share intimate confidences, as Moya employs all his highly-honed listening skills: “detective, anthropologist, father confessor, and seducer all at once” (374). But when they get up to leave, after the other diners have gone home and as the restaurant receives its late-night delivery of live chickens for the next day’s meals, Flor tells Moya: “It was scary in a way, kind of awful, playing along with you like that. Pretending to tell you everything. I ended up feeling all on the surface” (399). No connection can be trusted; everything is an act.

Without ever relativizing or attempting to excuse away the violence (and thankfully, the novel has very little in the way of political moralizing or grandstanding), Goldman suggests a complex web of complicities in which purity and innocence are inevitably illusions. Moya only half-jokingly tells Flor that she “will make a wonderful saint” (275), and at first glance she is the pristine subaltern victim, brutally murdered when her only crime is to be seeking a better life for her unfortunate charges. But by the end we might be starting to think (however guiltily) that in some way she brought her fate upon herself. That is, if it is not Moya himself, fiercely independent journalist and one of the few in the country who dares to speak truth to power, who might prove indirectly responsible thanks to a brief lapse in his careful self-regulation. As for Roger, who betrays Moya in his youth by backing out of a dare that was supposed to seal the friendship between the two of them, he is an ambivalent figure, milquetoast and self-involved, whose feelings towards Flor are thoroughly conflicted: part guilt, part adoration, part quasi-incestuous desire.

There is a lot to this novel, whose plot shifts between narrative points of view and across a series of non-linear jumps forwards and backwards in time, governed by memory, conversation, nostalgia, but also a thriller writer’s deft handling of suspense. Yet this formal complexity also obscures the fact that in some ways very little happens in it. Indeed, often what does not happen turns out to be more significant than what does: it is structured by a succession of missed opportunities and oversights, trails that go nowhere as well as connections that cannot be established. Its repeated refrain is the phrase that Moya takes from a French thriller and passes on to Roger, somewhere between shallow witticism and deep regret: “Guatemala doesn’t exist.” To which is sometimes (but not always) added: “and I know, because I have been there” (27). There is no “there” there, otherness is a product of the imagination, and yet only painful experience ratifies a nebulous nothingness that cannot quite be pinned down.

Meanwhile, time marches on, for the book’s temporal trickery cannot fully negate the fact that time passes and there is no going back. Towards the end, Roger finds himself on a cross-country bus, but is repeatedly indecisive about where he will get off and so extends his ticket over and over until the bemused conductor pronounces him “more lost than the Wandering Jew” (426). At the end of the book, he is still lost, still in movement, but perhaps a little less deceived about the virtues of undeception.

In the Belly of the Horse

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Eliana Tobias’s In the Belly of the Horse chronicles the aftermath of Peru’s civil war of the 1980s and 1990s. It opens with a scene in a small village in the northern highlands, as the Shining Path guerrilla approach and a father seeks to take his seven-year-old son (Salvador) to safety, leaving his wife to look after their property until he can return. But he never comes back, and the novel chronicles the fate of this splintered family over the following fifteen to twenty years.

Salvador and his father are soon separated, and we are left guessing as to the latter’s fate for most of the narrative that follows. The boy, however, makes his way to the nearest large town (Cajamarca) where he falls in with another homeless child, a girl called Lucía who shows him how to make a precarious living on the streets, begging or stealing food and sleeping at night in the local cemetery. Later Salvador manages to track down his uncle (his mother’s brother), who takes him in and arranges for his education when the two of them subsequently move to the national capital, Lima.

Gradually, Salvador finds his feet and even thrives, getting a job as a policeman and meeting and marrying a psychologist (Carmen) who works for the postwar Truth and Reconciliation Commission. At first his uncle warns him against looking too hard for his missing parents. His fear is that the boy will come under suspicion for having too great an interest in the fate of people tainted with association with “terrorism,” as so many were in the highlands even when they were in fact the victims of guerrilla action. But as time goes on, and at the urging of his wife, he becomes increasingly involved in the search for the truth of what happened not only to his own parents, but also to the tens of thousands more who died or were displaced during the conflict.

Meanwhile, in parallel, we also follow the tracks of Salvador’s mother, Otilia, as she first seeks refuge in a remote mining encampment and later migrates to the United States. She, too, cannot put out of her mind her missing family members. And likewise she becomes involved in broader efforts to seek information and gain justice for those affected by state violence and bureaucratic obfuscation, joining a church-based group with representatives from places such as Chile and Guatemala. She even returns to Peru, making affidavits and chasing down what few leads she has to trace her missing husband and son, but to no avail.

Ultimately (and this is a spoiler, but no great surprise to the reader), Salvador and Otilia are reunited, and he meets her in her new home in California, but this is not until almost the very end of the book, which then ends rather abruptly: he returns to Lima, but she stays in the USA, only to visit at Christmas when she convinces her son to lay a stone in his (still) missing father’s name at a monument for the disappeared.

Overall, mother and son are together in this book for only about twenty-five of its 260 pages. Indeed, the family group (parents plus child) has already broken up by page three. And there is little attempt to reconstruct memories of when it had been whole. So what is lost is somehow intangible; we are led to feel very keenly that something is missing, but it is never quite clear what that something may have been. When Salvador and Otilia are together once more at last, their relationship is charged with uncertainty and distance. There is, after all, no going back, even if either of them were able to recall what they might be going back to. They are not the same people that they once were. If anything, what most unites them is this shared sense of loss that should notionally disappear once they have found each other. So perhaps the only way for them to maintain that connection is by denying, in part, that they have really been found. In other words, they paradoxically need to hold on to their loss in order to overcome it.

Indeed, distance and misconnection predominate throughout the novel. Almost every relationship that the two characters establish in the interim, while they await their predestined re-encounter, is somehow incomplete or unsatisfactory. On Salvador’s part, for instance, he is never really close to his uncle, while Lucía remains remote and unapproachable right until she comes to her own untimely end. Even his marriage is characterized by strikingly stilted conversation, as he and his wife swap talking points more often than they exchange intimacies: “Salvador knew well how hard it was to seek restorative justice and he worried that Carmen might be pushed to the edge. ‘Stories like theirs must be told,’ she said, smiling weakly” (203). In fact, the prose throughout the novel tends to be wooden, as though to remind us that none of the characters ever feels particularly comfortable with their lot: everyone is portrayed as though they were consistently on edge, awkward and unsettled.

In short, this book is not an easy read. It has few pretensions to literariness or lyricism. Even the title, which promises to carry some kind of metaphorical or allegorical import, turns out to have a surprisingly literal meaning: as a child, Salvador was briefly hidden by his father inside the belly of an eviscerated horse. But perhaps all this points to one of the book’s (inadvertent) virtues: its portrayal of violence and alienation as mundane and even banal, devoid of any deeper meaning, but no less traumatic for all that.

UBC and the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies

An edited version of this piece was published at The Tyee as “Latest Uproar at UBC May Present an Opportunity: Why the Tussle over Peter Wall Institute is a Teaching Moment for Every University”.

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Backs to the Wall: UBC and the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies

A few years ago, the then Director of the University of British Columbia’s Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies asked me to write a Wikipedia article about the Institute. I did, but almost immediately another Wikipedia editor tagged my contribution for deletion on the grounds that its subject was insufficiently notable, because I had not cited independent secondary sources about it: newspaper articles, magazine stories, and so on.

The snag was that almost nothing had been written about the place. I searched (and asked the Director) for sources, but none were to be found. As far as the press or the general public were concerned, it was as though the Peter Wall Institute did not exist.

That is not so much the Institute’s problem any more. Its recent public events, particularly its “Wall Exchange” downtown lecture series, have enjoyed a high local profile. And now it has attracted the attention of the national and international media.

Unfortunately, this follows the spectacular resignation of its Director, and the headlines are not what UBC would have wanted: ”Academic Independence of UBC Research Institute Under Threat”; ”Head of UBC Research Institute Resigns over Academic Freedom Concern”; ”Canadian Institute Loses Boss in Showdown over High-Risk Science”. Light is being shed on the Peter Wall Institute just as it is at the eye of a darkening storm that threatens the university’s highest echelons.

UBC has been plagued by discord for a while: from the departure of its previous president, Arvind Gupta, after only thirteen months in office, followed swiftly by the resignation of the Chair of its Board of Governors, who many felt (and leaked documents seemed to confirm) had pushed Gupta out, and a Faculty Association vote of no confidence in the Board, to the controversial dismissal of novelist and professor Steven Galloway, this has been a difficult time for an institution that claims to be among the world’s top twenty public universities.

Now, once again, UBC is making the news for all the wrong reasons, as very different philosophies of the role and functioning of the university clash.

These disputes are not all simply accidental misfortunes; nor are they mainly petty matters of personality or style. They concern governance and collegiality, transparency and accountability. Above all, what is at issue is the question of what universities are for and who gets to decide. These are large concerns that are under dispute at institutions across the globe. The fact that things have repeatedly come to a head here, perhaps more than elsewhere, may in fact reflect well on UBC. It shows that there are still people who care enough to protest.

Philippe Tortell, Director of the Wall Institute, for instance. In a letter outlining the reasons for his resignation, he argues that the Institute, by bringing together scholars from across the university to meet and discuss their research outside of department and faculty structures, offers “a model for truly creative and unconventional thinking in the increasingly bureaucratic culture that is spreading across universities around the world.”

So when the UBC president, Santa Ono, issued what Tortell describes as “a series of directives” that would “eliminate the majority of PWIAS programs” and appropriate “a large fraction of PWIAS funds” for programs run by central administration, this came across as “an existential threat to the Institute’s core mission, academic independence and capacity to catalyze truly innovative and creative research.” The bureaucracy was taking over, in the name of a “strategic plan” that elsewhere Tortell calls “a total travesty and a total sham . . . an empty, hollow document of which the administration should be wholeheartedly embarrassed.”

On the one hand, then, you have top-down directives from the university hierarchy. Ono’s Vice-President for “Research and Innovation,” Gail Murphy, helps to oversee the “Research Excellence Clusters” to which Peter Wall funds are now to be tied. The UBC Plan’s primary definition of “research impact” for such clusters cites “spinoffs that take advantage of technological developments.” This model may work in some areas of the Sciences. A Computer Scientist, Murphy’s work is on “improving the productivity of knowledge workers, including software developers,” and in line with the Plan she directs a spin-off company that trumpets its links to firms such as Deloitte, Lockheed Martin, and Northrup Grumman.

On the other hand, you have an Institute that offers scholars some autonomy from administrative or market demands, with a mission to promote “deep and unconstrained research into some of the most profound questions and challenges facing humanity.” Its most visible activity within the university is the Wall Scholars program, whose main requirement is no more and no less than that scholars be in residence at the Institute and meet regularly. In addition to Director Tortell, an oceanographer who studies the concentration of gases such as carbon dioxide in the Antarctic Ocean, it has Distinguished Professors such as Derek Gregory, a geographer dedicated to “a critical study of the techno-cultural and political dimensions of air war.”

It is not hard to see that there are very different visions at work here. There is a widening gulf between what the British critic Stephan Collini calls the “outer bluster and inner defensiveness” of “current HiEdspeak” and the more modest aims of an Institute whose method is to bring people together and see what happens when they work without the constraints of directives from above or the injunction to seek yet more revenue from outside.

Not that the Institute is perfect; far from it. There is some irony to the fact that it is only thanks to a wealthy donor–the eponymous Peter Wall, a Vancouver property developer, who in 1991 gave the then extravagant sum of $15 million in his own corporation’s shares to the university–that the Institute has been able to maintain some distance from a central administration increasingly focused on figures and funding. Members of the Wall family, moreover, make up two of the five seats on the institution’s Board of Trustees, a fact that complicates and compromises its independence. There could have been more in the way of intellectual leadership, and not simply via fiery statements of resignation. At times the atmosphere is too cosy, too much like a somewhat sedate Faculty Club.

Above all, the Institute could undoubtedly have been making a better case for itself, and for its alternative vision of the university. This is its responsibility, and it may have led to more press coverage and attention, and not just in the face of the imminent dispossession of its autonomy. It would also have made it easier to write about it for Wikipedia.

Right now, the Institute’s Wikipedia article is basically a puff piece, crafted largely by its own staff, and prefaced with an official Wikipedia warning that it “is written like an advertisement.” The temptations to vacuous self-promotion are many and strong, and few in the contemporary university are immune to them. “Please help improve it,” the warning continues, “by removing promotional content and inappropriate external links.” The university, like a Wikipedia article, is a work in progress that can always be improved, and that task should not be left to the administrators.

The fight is not over. In the face of overwhelming disapproval of his decision, President Ono has taken a qualified step back and promises “a fulsome conversation.” Better late than never, though the sword of Damocles is still poised over what has been an intellectual oasis for many of us.

And perhaps this crisis can become an opportunity. With the spotlight on the Wall Institute, now is the time to acknowledge the importance of interdisciplinary research dedicated to critique and innovation rather than utility or financial profit. If the university can come together for an open and thoughtful discussion of the very nature of “advanced study,” it would be a move in the right direction. What is at stake is the nature of the institution itself, and the university’s distance from the the logics of state or market. This means that the university needs to be accountable to the Wall Institute, as much as the Institute needs to be accountable to the university.

It would be a positive outcome of the current controversy if UBC emerged with increased powers of resistance, more democratic and more certain of why we need universities in the first place.

See also: excellence, From Discipline and Discovery to Place & Promise, Warwick University Ltd, From Here, Universities at War