La hora de la estrella

Clarice Lispector, La hora de la estrella

Clarice Lispector’s A hora da estrela (La hora de la estrella / The Hour of the Star) begins and ends with an affirmation: “All the world began with a yes” (11); “It’s strawberry season. Yes.” (96). But the two yeses are quite distinct. The first, at least in appearance, is quite profound: it is the story of cosmic genesis, a quasi-Biblical assertion of universality. The second, by contrast, seems to be much more insubstantial: the gourmand’s note about a fruit that happens to be available. Indeed, given what has taken place in the course of the novel and the ninety pages that separate these two lines, the second yes is if anything flippant or disingenuous. For we have just seen the book’s heroine, Macabéa, an impoverished, sickly, and practically friendless young woman immigrant from the countryside to Rio de Janeiro, be run over and senselessly die on a darkened city street. In this context, to lick one’s lips and head off for a punnet of strawberries and cream is evidence of a lack of compassion or even responsibility. And yet it is the same voice, the same narrator, who provides us with both affirmations. And indeed, beyond being merely a tale of life and death in urban Brazil, this novel is also very much concerned with the affects and debts that authors project onto their writing and their readers, and that readers in turn bear towards both the book and the world.

So alongside and undercutting the affirmations are a series of questions and anxieties. This is an author who often does not seem all that sure of himself. For instance, before the book proper begins there is a “Dedication by the author” in which he reveals that “what trips up my life is writing” (8), and following which is a series of alternative titles for the book itself: “The Hour of the Star,” but also “It’s All My Fault,” “I Can’t Do Anything,” and “Cheap Tearjerker” (9). It’s as though it were up to the reader to be the final judge as to what the book should really be called, or as to whether the author has made the right decisions. Indeed, throughout, he turns to us to explain and justify himself where he can, and to throw himself on our mercy where he can’t or won’t. Even down to the issue of his heroine’s death, he is keen to stress his limits, his powerlessness: “Is perhaps Macabea going to die? How would I know?” (90). And when something does happen, his response–like Macabéa’s own resigned view of the world–is that that’s just the way things are. That’s fate, that’s (like the accident itself that mows Macabéa down) all part of life’s game of chance. So why, then, talk of blame at all? “Who am I,” the author asks, “to punish the guilty? The worst of it is that you have to forgive them. You have to get to such a point of nothingness that it’s a matter of indifference whether or not you love the criminal who kills you” (90). And if this is the lesson of the book, then it’s perhaps only Macabea herself who ever arrives at this point of bliss, such that she can forgive both the driver who kills her and the author who (for all his denials) has her killed.

Meanwhile, all this talk of the author is in an important way seriously misleading. For however self-aware he may be about his role as a writer, what the author never seems fully to realize is that he, too, is but another character. For the real author of La hora de la estrella is, of course, Clarice Lispector, who makes herself known only fleetingly: with the subtitle to the author’s dedication, “In truth [en verdad], Clarice Lispector” (7), and with a signature inserted in the list of potential, but discarded, titles for the novel. And yet even these gestures of showing the author’s hand are themselves misleading. For the author of the dedication is not “in truth” Lispector in that there is no reason why we should expect to believe that this is her own voice any more than we can believe her stand-in, to whom she has given the name of Rodrigo S. M. And just the same goes for her as goes for Rodrigo when he asks himself “Or am I not an actor? In truth [en verdad] I’m more of an actor because with only one way to punctuate, I juggle with intonation and force another’s breathing to accompany my text” (24). Lispector, too, can do no more than juggle with the limits imposed upon her by grammar and writing. And the signature she gives us, as though it were the proof of some legal claim to the text, the trace that confirms the contract made with the reader, is but a mass-produced image, identical on every copy sold. Language and the market together work to erase individuality; and yet they are also the tools with which we endlessly try to distinguish ourselves.

Macabéa, in turn, is also a creature and victim of these same forces, neither more or less than Rodrigo S. M. or Clarice Lispector, though her existence is rather more precarious than that of either the presumed authors. One sign of this is that she is blessed only with a first name, and even that is withheld until almost halfway through the book. The man that becomes briefly her boyfriend, who asks her for her name and so allows it be revealed to the reader, is endlessly fretting about how to make a name for himself. He does so literally as he declares that he is “Olímpico de Jesús Moreira Chaves” when in fact “all he had for a surname was Jesús, the surname given to those without a father” (49). Likewise, Olímpico is keen to feign knowledge and mastery of language in general, blustering or brushing Macabéa off when she comes to him with new words that she has heard on the radio or elsewhere: “What does ‘culture’ mean? –Culture is culture, he continued sulkily. [. . .] ‘What does ‘per capita income’ mean? –Oh, that’s easy, it’s something for doctors” (55). Macabéa, on the other hand, is often literal-minded in her approach to language. “Look, Macabéa,” Olímpico says to her at one point. “What is there to look at?” she responds. “No, my God, no, there’s a ‘Look’ that has to do with looking and a ‘Look’ that’s when you want someone to listen to you. Are you listening to me?” (60). Everywhere, even in the simplest of interjections, language threatens to trip up authors and characters alike. Meanwhile, Macabéa is equally a creature of the market: almost literally so, in that her diet apparently consists entirely of hot dogs and Coca Cola. Likewise, her dream comes directly from mass culture: to be a film star, like Marilyn Monroe. This is the “hour of the star,” the hour of one’s death in which “you become like a blazing cinema star, it’s everyone’s moment of glory” (31).

When, ultimately, Macabéa ends up dying on the roadside, hit (ironically or appropriately enough) by a yellow Mercedes whose driver doesn’t bother to stop to see the damage he’s caused, it’s not immediately clear that this is the longed-for hour of the star. But Lispector (or Rodrigro S. M.) suggests that it’s only in this moment that Macabéa is born, “born for death’s embrace” (93). And it’s only, lying there, that she becomes woman. But this is a strange kind of becoming: neither subject nor object (for in truth in most of her short life, she’s never been either), the last words we hear her say, “clearly and distinctly,” is the phrase “And as for the future” (94). This is a future that seems closed off to her, as much as it had ever been, except that she has been immortalized, however reluctantly, by the author(s) whose frame of reference she forever escapes. Yes.

Wikipedia’s Women Problem

We Can Edit

There’s much to say about women and Wikipedia… for instance, about the so-called “gender gap” that (it is said) can be seen both among the encyclopedia’s editors, who are overwhelmingly male, as well as in the articles themselves, which tend to treat topics historically coded as male at greater length and with more seriousness than they cover topics associated with women.

Indeed, a lot has been written about the topic, but one of the smartest commentators on these issues was Adrianne Wadewitz: see her HASTACS blog, and entries such as “Wikipedia’s gender gap and the complicated reality of systemic gender bias”.

Wadewitz mentions what she calls “categorygate,” the furor sparked by Amanda Filipacchi’s New York Times Op-Ed: “Wikipedia’s Sexism Towards Women Novelists”. See also James Gleick’s article for the New York Review of Books blog: “Wikipedia’s Women Problem”.

In this context, it’s worth noting that though there are now (roughly parallel) categories for (say) women novelists and male novelists on the English Wikipedia, this is not the case on the Spanish Wikipedia. Here (for instance) the category escritoras is simply a subset of the broader category escritores, and there is no corresponding division of “escritores masculinos.”

This disparity between the treatment of (women) writers on the two Wikipedias is, of course, partly for linguistic reasons, stemming from differences between English and Spanish. But only partly. And in any case, why should such different ways of encoding gendered identities within language remain sacrosanct?

Interview in eldiario.es

Jon Beasley-Murray

I was interviewed by Amador Fernández-Savater for eldiario.es: Jon Beasley-Murray: “La clave del cambio social no es la ideología, sino los cuerpos, los afectos y los hábitos”. An extract:

12- Los movimientos políticos que te interesan son “enigmáticos, invisibles, misteriosos y fuera de lugar”. No representan ni se dejan representar. Funcionan de alguna manera como los propios afectos: opacos y sin discurso articulado, sin demanda ni proyecto. Pero ese tipo de fuerza, ¿puede ser algo más que destituyente? ¿Puede convertirse también en un poder constituyente, creador de instituciones que organicen nuestra vida cotidiana?

Jon Beasley-Murray. ¡Son muchos los movimientos políticos que me interesan! O, en otras palabras, son muchos (¿todos?) los que tienen su costado enigmático, invisible, misterioso y fuera de lugar. Para mí, no se trata de escoger los movimientos que te gustan y apostar todo en ellos, como si se tratase de una carrera de caballos. Los movimientos son procesos de experimentación y los resultados nunca se pueden predecir ¡ni prevenir! Esa experimentación sin garantías es la esencia de la política, de otro modo no estamos hablando de política, sino de implementación de planes técnicos. En cada caso, en cada momento, está presente la posibilidad de ambivalencia, de error, de desastre.

No vamos a ninguna parte sin reconocer esa opacidad inherente e inevitable de la política. Mejor afirmarla que negarla o intentar eliminarla. Sobre todo, porque es desde ese lado oscuro que emerge cualquier posibilidad de lo nuevo, de la creación. Así que lo veo todo al revés de como lo plantea tu pregunta: lo que es claro, visible, ordenado, previsible y cognoscible me parece que nunca puede ser constituyente, porque (para bien o para mal) es pura repetición de lo mismo.

Pero bueno, algo que aprendemos del hábito es que la repetición de lo mismo es otra ilusión: aún dentro de las repeticiones más regulares, algo se escapa, entra siempre la opacidad y el enigma. Y es por esto que debemos atender a estos momentos, de desviación y deriva, por sutiles y (casi) invisibles que sean.

13- Si no es la toma del poder, ¿qué sería un éxito, un logro, una victoria para los movimientos que te interesan?

Jon Beasley-Murray. La creatividad, la creación, la invención de nuevas formas de vivir; la expansión de lo común, de la comunidad. Un éxito nunca acabado, por supuesto; una victoria siempre por venir. O, en palabras del marqués de Sade, supuestamente en reacción a la Revolución Francesa: encore un effort si vous voulez être vraiment républicains! (todavía un esfuerzo si queréis ser verdaderamente republicanos)

There should be a second piece before long, with a focus on corruption. In the meantime, there’s quite a lively discussion of this one, not only in the comments on eldiario.es, but also on a page dedicated to Podemos on Reddit.

“La furia” and Other Stories

Silvina Ocampo, La furia

“El vestido de terciopelo” (“The Velvet Dress”), a short story found almost halfway through Silvina Ocampo’s collection La furia y otros cuentos, is narrated by a young girl, eight years old. The narrator is very much ancillary to the story’s main plot, which concerns a dressmaker from the Buenos Aires suburbs who comes into the city so that an upper-middle class woman client can try out a dress before setting out on a European vacation. It is not even clear why the girl is there: everyone assumes that she’s the dressmaker’s daughter, and she’s been dragged along against her will. She helps out with the fitting, for instance by gathering up some pins that are dropped on the floor, but her main contribution is her repeated commentary: “¡Qué risa!” (“What a laugh!”). Incongruous from the outset, this refrain becomes ever more out of place as events steadily turn to the weirder and the worse: the dress barely seems to fit, its embroidered dragon takes on a life of its own, the woman can’t take it off (“It’s a prison,” she says [159]), and finally all of a sudden she drops down dead. The dressmaker’s response is to lament the money spent making a dress that she can now no longer sell: “It cost me so much, so much!” (160). And the girl? “¡Qué risa!”

Welcome to the world of Ocampo’s short fiction, in which the strange and the fantastic so often erupt with surprising violence from the mundane and everyday. But seen through the eyes of a child, or perhaps some other character who is marginal to or not fully integrated within the events that unfold around them, the tone that the stories take is frequently at odds with the uncanny horrors that they relate. Ocampo depicts daily life as constantly susceptible to the emergence of sinister doubles, inexplicable cruelties, abrupt reversals, and sudden death. Take another example: “Voz en el teléfono” (“Voice on the Telephone”), which begins as a one-sided conversation in which the narrator, despite his reluctance (“I hate the telephone!” [193]), is explaining to his partner why the other day he was reluctant to light her cigarette. This involves a “history of matches” and takes him back to his childhood when, during his fourth birthday party, he and his fellow-toddler guests lock their mothers in a room and set the house ablaze. But the entire tale is told in such a matter-of-fact manner, and simply to explain a moment of social awkwardness. What’s more, having briefly described his last sight of his mother–“her face looking down, propped on the balcony balustrade” (202)–he shifts immediately to report on the fate of an antique Chinese chest of drawers that, “happily” was saved from the fire. Some of its carved, wooden figures, however, were damaged: not least one of “a woman carrying a child in her arms that looked a little like my mother and me” (202).

The fact of looking “a little like” is key, I think. For what’s most uncanny about a double is that it is never entirely the same as its twin. What’s sinister about any resemblance is that it’s the same but somehow in a different key. Or more generally, for the most part the power of Ocampo’s narrative arises from the fact that it portrays scenarios that we can almost recognize, but not quite. And perhaps we can’t always quote locate with great precision the point at which things start go veer towards disaster, however much hints of the grotesquerie to come are embedded even in a story’s opening lines. Everything is just a little bit off from the start, and as such the stories reproduce the perspective of those who are already somewhat out of place: the girl tagging along with the seamstress; the suburban lower class in the fancy apartment; the child trying to make sense of the mother’s conversation; the woman making the best of a bad marriage; and so on and so forth. And by the end of it all you’re wondering who the real freaks are. In “La casa de los relojes” (“The House of the Watches”), for example–another tale told by a child–a party gets out of hand as a small mob decides to iron out the wrinkles in the local hunchback’s suit, and then by an irreproachable extension of the same logic, to iron out the hunchback’s back, too. All this is told in the form of a letter to a teacher, as a sort of “What I Did in My Summer Vacation.” It ends with the promise to write again once the author finds out what’s happened to the hunchback, followed by final salutation of warm regards from a “favourite student” (55). But what lessons are being learned when the whole world is apparently out of kilter and yet nobody quite seems to register the disarray?

All this could be read as in part political allegory: “El vestido de terciopelo,” for instance, is set during the epoch of Juan Perón’s first presidency, and as such its combination of the uncanny with the threat of class-based violence reminds us perhaps of Julio Cortázar’s “La casa tomada.” (Christian Rodríguez makes this comparison here.) Likewise, both this story and “La casa de los relojes” might make us think of (Ocampo’s husband) Alfredo Bioy Casares’s collaboration with Jorge Luis Borges, “La fiesta del monstruo.” The mob, then, would be a specifically Peronist mob; and the dressmaker from the suburbs and her incongruously comic child sidekick with their deadly handiwork would represent the threat of the cabecitas negras to the housewives of the Barrio Norte. This is too crude (or too reductive), but it would still be worth considering the more general potential political charge of Ocampo’s stories, which is finely balanced between horror and sympathy for the marginal and the outcast. The fact that the “other” is never completely other, but perhaps just a degree or two distinct from “us,” can be (and often is) taken as a cause for elite anxiety or panic. In Ocampo, on the other hand, however she was fully part of that elite, there’s also the treacherous thought that the privileged and those who pass for “normal” deserve a comeuppance, that vengeance against them is never completely unjustified or misdirected, if not necessarily in the horrific form that they consistently seem to get it in her short stories. The furies, after all, are not entirely wrong.

After Posthegemony

aniversario

Paper given at “Reflecting on Latin American Studies: Perspectives From 25 Years of Scholarship and Practice”
The 25th Anniversary Conference of the UNC/Duke Consortium in Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Durham and Chapel Hill, NC, February 2015

“After Posthegemony”

It would be hard to underestimate the impact on me of the Duke/UNC Program in Latin American Studies (as it was then still called). I arrived at Duke in 1994 without any specific intention to study Latin America: I was interested rather in theoretical questions that involved authors such as Gilles Deleuze, Pierre Bourdieu, and Antonio Negri. But I soon found Latin American Studies to be a productive setting to pose those questions, and the Duke/UNC Program a hub of lively and challenging discussion on precisely the issues that my questions sought to address. How best to think about political agency and organization? What roles were played by culture on the one hand and the state on the other? What concepts best illuminated and explained both contemporary and historical social movements? Asking such questions in the context of specific political and social conjunctures in Latin America, from populist mobilization in Argentina to Maoist insurgency in Peru, forced me continually to reconsider the formulation of my concerns and what was at stake in my investigation, as well as preventing (I hope) my replies from becoming too arid and abstract. The path I took was formed by chance and serendipity: Peronism, for instance, became a key part of my dissertation owing to the fact that I took an inspiring class on the topic with Danny James and Alberto Moreiras; I became fascinated by Sendero Luminoso thanks largely to the opportunity provided by a Ford Foundation-funded exchange with a parallel consortium of institutions in Peru.

I was above all motivated by the fact that the structure of the Duke/UNC Program gave such latitude to student initiatives, and that we had so much input into shaping the intellectual agenda. This was because of the key role played by working groups, run collaboratively with faculty mentors. So Alberto and I, with the help of many others over the years, organized a long-running and very active group on “Culture and State in Latin America,” which became a vital part of the professional and intellectual experience of an entire cohort of graduate students. We invited countless visiting speakers, organized numerous workshops, and contributed to or co-sponsored myriad other events. But the heart and soul of the group were our regular meetings in the house that was the then home of (what was) the Duke Center for Latin American Studies, where we read and debated texts, fuelled by endless supplies of snacks, beer, wine, and pizza, as well as the odd cigarette that would lead program administrator Natalie Hartman to chide us for leaving the butts strewn on the ground outside. These were intense meetings and they made for an experience that has certainly stayed with many of us. Indeed, it would not be far-fetched to say that the “Culture and State” group has had a quite profound effect on an entire field, an impact that is registered in the first place through a whole series of subsequent publications by former working group members. None of this would have been possible without the foresight of those who planned the Duke/UNC Program with such a central role for student/faculty collaboration, and the trust (and resources) that those who administered the program, Natalie Hartman especially, put into our activities.

In my case, what came out of my involvement with the Program and my experience with the “Culture and State” working group was a dissertation, subsequently heavily revised into a book, on “Posthegemony.” Indeed, the concept of posthegemony was first articulated, so far as I am concerned, as part of an event organized in part under the auspices of the Center for Latin American Studies: the 1998 meeting on “Cross-Genealogies and Subaltern Knowledges,” which was also (somewhat notoriously) the last hurrah of the Latin American Subaltern Studies group. In any case, it is in Posthegemony that I ultimately managed to combine the theoretical questions that had first brought me to Duke with the experience in Latin American Studies (and Latin America itself) that led me to refine and even rethink those questions. The book is an ambitious one (in its earlier incarnation as a dissertation, it had a subtitle proclaiming that its historical scope was from October 10, 1492, to April 13, 2002) in which a theoretical argument contesting the concept of hegemony, as made popular in cultural studies, and the notion of civil society, as found often in the social sciences, runs (almost) parallel to studies of socio-political conjunctures in Argentina, Peru, Chile, El Salvador, and Venezuela.

Along the way, I try to articulate a new way of thinking the grounds of politics, and the relationship between culture and state, in terms of affect, habit, and multitude. I argue, in brief, that instead of focusing on ideologies, in the sense of meaningful (mis)representations of social reality, and on discourses, in the sense of systems of significations and beliefs, we would be better off thinking about politics in terms of dispositions of bodies that are animated (and managed) by flows or blockages of energy that never fully enter into conscious calculation or understanding. I further suggest that would-be hegemonic projects that claim to underwrite the legitimacy of a state-centered constituted power are anchored on the simultaneous repudiation and appropriation of a more fundamental constituent power that constantly exceeds their grasp. My mantra, the slogan that repeats throughout the book across its various contexts from the initial moments of Spanish colonization in the Americas to the so-called Latin American “left turns” of the past twenty years, is that “something always escapes”: something escapes both the institutionalized organization of political movements and the concepts and theories (hegemony theory, civil society theory) that are invoked to explain and understand them.

Read more… (.pdf document)

Balún Canán II

Balún Canán cover

The seeds of the disaster sown or foreseen in the first half of Balún Canán are well and truly reaped in the second. Characters drop like flies: the illegitimate nephew Ernesto, cousin Matilde, and ultimately even the son and prospective heir Mario. Meanwhile, the country estate is devoured by fire and the family forced to retreat to the relative safety of Comitán, only for the patriarch César to head off to the regional capital, Tuxtla. Here he bakes in a flea-bitten hotel room with a broken fan as he futilely seeks an audience with the Governor of Chiapas. What’s more, in Tuxtla “it’s hard to distinguish, at first sight, between a señor and anyone else”; in fact “there aren’t really any señores in the strict sense of the term” (229). The whole hierarchical system has shifted, and César finds himself rather nearer the bottom of the pecking order than he would like. But why bother even to save the ancestral estate when, in Comitán, without him, the family is falling apart and coming to what might as well be a dead end. Which is not even the worst of all possible worlds. For family friend Jaime Rovelo, it’s better that the son die than that he turn against all the family stands for, as his own son has with his “belief in these new theories, Communism or whatever you call it” (231).

But there is little to nothing in the way of triumphalism in the novel. Indeed, it ends with a predominant tone of shame and even guilt. For finally the older daughter, whose presence in the novel has been otherwise almost spectral, not only takes up the reins of the narration again in the final section but also intervenes in the plot itself. Or perhaps she does. She hides the key to the chapel in which the children are due to have their first communion. Scared off by the priest and by a prevailing Christian discourse of fire and brimstone (“You need to know the essential thing: That there is a hell” [249]), Mario has told his sister that he doesn’t want to take communion (255). So by misplacing the key, she’s acting on his behalf. But Mario, always weak (and if it weren’t for the fact that he’s the designated Argüello heir, as much of a non-entity as his un-named sister), takes a turn for the worse, causing consternation in the household. In his delirium, apparently he keeps returning to what his sister has done. His mother reports, without understanding or really taking him seriously: “I don’t know what he’s saying about a key. All night he was saying the same thing over and over” (262). So the daughter seems to feel that she is responsible for his decline and (ultimately) death. “It’s not Mario,” she says by his coffin, “It’s my guilt that’s rotting away at the bottom of that box” (277). And then she asks to go to family tomb, where she leaves the chapel key while saying a prayer, not so much to God as to the forefathers with whom Mario will now be in perpetuity, “that they be good” with him, “that they play with him, that they spend time with him. Because now that I know the taste of loneliness I don’t want him to have to try it” (283). The book ends, then, with a double scene of mis/recognition. Out on the street, the narrator thinks that she sees her old nurse, but it turns out that she’s wrong and that “all Indians have the same face” (285). Back in the house, she then inscribes Mario’s name on any surface to hand, bricks, walls, a notebook, “because Mario is far away. And I’d like to ask him for forgiveness” (286).

But if this is the daughter’s intervention into the plot, her belated grasp at subjectivity as she acts on behalf of her brother only (perhaps) to provoke his final sickness, then it’s strangely equivocal. For it is something like a hidden plot, an action that goes almost totally unseen. The mother, after all, is convinced that the cause of her son’s illness and death is witchcraft: the Indians back at the ranch have cast some kind of spell over him. The reader may attribute his decline to something more mundane, such as appendicitis. His sister’s responsibility, and her shame and guilt, escape and silently defy both possibilities. What, in any case, is the source of her guilt? Is it that she has caused his death? That she has allowed him to die without the blessing of a first communion? Or simply that she has left him on his own, albeit in the name of freeing him from both the institution of the church and the weight of inheritance, of an older and more deeply embedded shame: the guilt pertaining to the entire class of white landowners. The sister then cannot escape her own shame, the disgraceful fact that she is no longer able to recognize the woman who suckled her, prayed for her, and raised her. She has to live with that guilt and betrayal, and she has to bear it without Mario by her side, and without its even being noted or acknowledged by anyone else around her. The daughter, the un-named narrator, has finally assumed her role as a sense of conscience that will forever, Cassandra-like, be silenced or ignored.

Balún Canán I

Balún Canán cover

It takes a while for Rosario Castellanos’s first novel, Balún Canán, to get going. The plot, such as it is, emerges only slowly as the un-named child narrator (a young girl, seven years old) gives us glimpses into her world as the daughter of a landlord family, the Argüellos, in 1930s Chiapas. The narrator’s anonymity indicates, among other things, how easily she is overlooked: it’s her younger brother, Mario, who is son and heir to the country estate and the family name. But this gives the girl a certain freedom as, guided by her indigenous nana, she explores the sights and sounds of the town of Comitán, and is given a window onto both traditional Indian beliefs and contemporary White anxieties. And these anxieties are what gradually gives the novel shape, for it turns out that we are in a time of transition: the landowners are losing their sway as the post-revolutionary government of Lázaro Cárdenas promotes land reform and indigenous education. With the state and the law apparently on their side, farmworkers and servants are less likely to be so docile. Concerned about the rumours he’s hearing from the countryside, and taking with him an illegitimate nephew, Ernesto, to fulfill the requirement to provide a teacher for the Indians in his care, the patriarch César Argüello sets out with his family to the ancestral domain, Chactajal. It is here that the story will finally pick up speed, even if the ultimate dénouement is back in Comitán.

But it is in the countryside where the new balance of forces is most evident. Even the journey to the Argüello estate proves unusually arduous. The weather is against them, and a local village refuses to give them shelter. They have to ford a river in flood, and then Ernesto shoots a deer, in defiance (or ignorance) of native custom. In short, the prospects are ominous, and even the fiesta to welcome the family to their estate is tinged with suspicion and threat: the child narrator notes “among the shadows, the hostile gaze of those who had not wanted to attend” (71). And so, from bad to worse as the local people make unprecedented demands on the owners of the manor house, demands that are now backed up by the state in the person of a visiting agrarian inspector. The inspector is not in a mood to be swayed by such hospitality as the house can offer, even though (or perhaps because) he’s greeted as César’s stepson, possibly his illegitimate child. The report the family receive is that what he tells the Indians is that “they no longer had a boss. That they were the ones who owned the property, that they had no obligation to work for anyone else. And he sent them a signal, by raising a closed fist” (134). So however much César tries to maintain his equilibrium, the reality that his power is rapidly fraying is clear for all to see. Moreover, in a social landscape that, for the Argüellos, is defined by treason and betrayal, not the least of the challenges to his authority come from within the family itself. Ernesto, for instance, is a loose cannon who is not entirely to be trusted however much he fantasizes himself as a potential heir or even saviour of the family fortunes. And César’s wife, Zoraida, increasingly berates him for losing his grip and showing insufficient firmness against indigenous lèse-majesté.

Zoraida is in fact one of the novel’s most interesting characters. She herself was raised in poverty, so senses how much she has at stake in the struggle to maintain the social divide between white and indigenous, landowner and peon. No wonder perhaps that it is she who most powerfully and venomously articulates both the racism and the sexism that structure and (purportedly) justify it. She upbraids her husband for not being, in essence, “man enough” to defend a patrimony to which she herself has only a relatively recent claim. She is determined, moreover, that all this should be passed on to her younger child and only son, Mario. In many ways she’s a signally unsympathetic figure, although at the same time the reasons why she adopts the attitudes she does are eminently understandable. The same goes for Ernesto, a similarly complex character whose struggle with his own illegitimacy and uncertain social standing the novel takes pains to delineate without ever asking us to absolve him for his stupidity or his cruelty. Indeed, in short, perhaps Castellanos’s most impressive achievement is to have sketched out a world that is full of shades of gray and ambivalence (for on the other side, the indigenous agitator Felipe is no saint, least of all in his wife’s eyes) without ever equivocating on fundamental issues of inequality and justice. Guided often by the most marginal members of a corrupt and hitherto complacent local aristocracy, we chart their decline with empathy but not a trace of nostalgia or absolution. The novel enjoins us neither to forget their humanity nor to forgive the inhumanities of the system to which they are indebted.

See also: Balún Canán II; Latin American Women Writers.