Biografía de un cimarrón

biografia_de_un_cimarron

The key to a testimonio is almost always found in its paratexts–its preface or introduction, epilogue or afterword. Which itself is odd enough: if this is a genre noted for, indeed for some defined by, its presentation of a story as it is, without literary pretensions, it is remarkable how much varnish its truth seems to require. But then it is these paratexts themselves that claim to offer the guarantee of veracity and legitimacy, often enough by laying bare (apparently) the mechanism of the text’s production, assuring us that what we see is really what we get. Moreover, it is in these supposedly ancillary texts that the testimonio’s editor or compiler, who otherwise usually removes his or her traces from the text itself (so that the informant can speak unadorned), outlines his or her role as the stand-in for the reader. For if the essence of the genre is its basis in the oral discourse of a subaltern presumed to be an outsider to literate culture, the original interviewer has to vouch for the bona fides of that original contact, even as he or she betrays it by subsequently translating oral exchange into written form. We are then to imagine ourselves in the editor’s place: listening more than reading, hearing the subaltern “speak,” as our proxy did for us once before. It is in a testimonio’s introduction or preface, then, that the book’s compiler often attests to his or her personal, affective, unmediated relationship to the book’s narrator, conjuring up a bond into which the reader can project themselves even as the editor outlines all the intermediary steps required for that fantasy to stick.

So it is, then, with Cuban anthropologist Miguel Barnet’s introduction to Biografía de un cimarrón (1966), the testimony of former runaway slave Esteban Montejo, which assures us that the book is based on a “living dialogue” between interviewer and interviewee (15). Barnet tells us that, having identified Montejo as a suitable source–mostly because of his extreme age, but also because of the intrinsic interest of his life–he put to good use “the customary resources of ethnological research” (for ethnologists have their customs, too). He tried to resolve some of Montejo’s immediate problems, to do with money, women, and health. He then gave him some small gifts: tobacco, badges, photos. And so the conversation began, if not quite along the lines that Barnet had originally envisaged when he thought that this would be primarily a study of the survival of African religious traits among Cuba’s black population. Indeed, at the outset, Barnet tells us, things were decidedly difficult, as Montejo “showed himself to be rather surly” (16). Perhaps the usual ethnological blandishments had not been enough! But even the tale of these difficulties serves its purpose, in that Barnet is telling us the story of how Montejo came (almost) to trust him, in the end even to “identify with us,” once he “realized the interest of the task at hand” (16). The gap between letrado and subaltern is visibly shrinking as the introduction proceeds.

But testimonio cannot rely on gifts, identification, or affective pact alone. Technology, specifically tape recording, is also a ubiquitous guarantee both of authenticity in that it (quite literally) captures the voice verbatim, and of the seriousness of the investigator’s research in that he or she can then go back over the interview and deepen his or her familiarity with the subject. As Barnet puts it: “Many of our sessions were recorded on magnetic tapes. This allowed us to familiarize ourselves with the linguistic forms, turns of phrase, syntax, archaisms, and idioms of [Montejo’s] speech” (18). The interviewer can thus immerse himself in his informant’s world, even if such immersion then begins to provoke doubt… “The need to verify facts, dates, or other details led us to have conversations with veterans who were more or less his contemporary. But none of them were old enough to have lived through the periods or events that Esteban related” (18).

Ultimately, the paratextual attempt to guarantee the veracity of the text as a whole ends up offering hostages to fortune. The description of the methodology by which the book came into being reminds us, whether we like it or not, of the multiple mediations that give the lie to the direct reproduction of experience that the book otherwise wishes to tell us it is presenting. We are reminded of editorial interventions, such as paraphrase and reordering of the narrative, even as they are justified on the grounds that “if we had faithfully mimicked the twists and turns of his language, the book would have made itself difficult to understand and excessively repetitive” (18). The paratext, then, itself a form of excess or supplement to the main text, exists to rein in the excesses of a different order that would otherwise disrupt any reading of the text. The tightrope or balancing act inherent in any testimonio becomes apparent, as it tries to remain faithful or true to its subject, without falling into the trap of becoming “excessively” so. Only a judicious pruning, or unfaithfulness to the source, can ensure that the text does not slip into incoherence or even nonsense.

Barnet’s introduction is interesting in that his relationship with Montejo seems to have been particularly complex, indeed verging on antagonistic–for all that he claims to have subdued or overcome Montejo’s original surliness. The anthropologist is eager to admit that “undoubtedly, many of his tales are not rigorously faithful to the facts. [. . .] His version is subjective. [. . .] It reflects our informant’s approach to things” (19). But this is less an admission of the testimonio’s weakness than an attempt to attest to its main strength. For unlike many similar narratives, Biografía de un cimarrón does not claim to be typical, or at least not in any simple sense. The very fact that Montejo was a runaway slave (who, we come to learn, spent much of his time alone, not trusting others) marks him out as different and distinct. Montejo is a renegade as much as or even more than he is a representative of nineteenth-century Cuba. But then that is because, Barnet implies, he is perhaps a man out of time: his “honesty,” his capacity to be true to himself (if not the facts), mark him as a “revolutionary” avant la lettre, even if his story never actually touches on Castro’s campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s. In the end, it is the fact that Montejo doesn’t entirely trust us, and is not entirely to be trusted in turn, that ensures less his tale’s veracity (because the truth doesn’t really matter) than its political charge.

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