In the Belly of the Horse

tobias_belly-of-the-horse

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”.

wall-institute

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

K

kucinski_k

The title of Bernardo Kucinski’s K immediately invokes Kafka, and its content mirrors in many ways his most famous novel, The Trial. “Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K.” is Kafka’s famous opening line, and in K, likewise, lies are more common than truth as Kucinski’s eponymous protagonist, K, probes the workings of the Brazilian state under the dictatorship of 1964-85.

K here is an older Jewish writer and scholar of Yiddish, a long-settled immigrant who arrived in Brazil back in the 1930s, fleeing Nazi persecution in his native Poland where he had been active in Zionist socialism. In São Paulo he has built a rather more sedate life, raising a family and above all immersing himself in literature and conversation with fellow writers. Until one day in 1974 he discovers that his adult daughter, who teaches Chemistry at the university, has disappeared, presumably taken by the Brazilian secret services. The book then traces his patient but increasingly hopeless struggle to track her down, or at least to find out what has happened to her. But all he hears are lies: not so much lies about him, as the lies that everyone is telling to him about his daughter’s fate and whether anyone can ever help him reconstruct it.

Unlike Kafka’s K, moreover, Kucinski’s is not so much caught up within the bureaucratic machinery of the state as consistently shut out from it. He notes that “The State is faceless and impassive, impervious and perverse. Its only weak point is corruption. But sometimes even access this way becomes impossible, on orders from above. And then the State becomes doubly malignant–cruel and unapproachable” (8). Well respected in his community, and even fairly well-known outside of it, K tries to pull whatever strings he can, tirelessly seeking out informers and allies in Brazil and beyond. But if the state is corrupt, it is not so for him.

Indeed, the closest K gets to the state bureaucracy, his “one and only contact with the justice system” (133), is when he is invited to a hearing of the Tribunal of Military Justice to witness the trial of a sergeant who had posed as a general in order to extort money from him for the (false) promise of information. The court comes down harshly on the rogue officer, who is stripped of his rank, jailed, and dismissed from the military on the grounds of “damaging the reputation of the Armed Forces by spreading the false information that civilians were detained in military installations for criminal purposes.” K then jumps up to ask about his daughter, only for the presiding judge to bang his gavel and declare: “The records show that no civilian is held in military installations. As the convicted prisoners’ confession demonstrates, it was all a charade” (136). So the right verdict (the sergeant really was an imposter; he could never have delivered what he claimed) serves only to uphold the much larger injustices of forced disappearance and torture.

The curious thing about the authoritarian state, at least in Kucinski’s account, is that it is both everywhere and nowhere. It is everywhere in that it is unavoidable: K is surprised to learn of the extent of its network of informers who pervade everyday life and include a familiar window-dresser and the owner of the local bakery; he wonders whether they had always been there, and it was just that “when the government was more tolerant it used the informers less” (21). But the state is nowhere in that it seems to keep no records, leave no trace: K notes that “even the Nazis, who had reduced their victims to ashes, had registered the dead. [. . .] There hadn’t been this agony of uncertainty” (14). It is as though the state were some kind of barely visible mist, which saturated social space but could never be pinned down or pictured.

All this raises a problem for the novel: how to represent something that to steadfastly evades representation. Kucinski’s solution to this problem is to give us a montage of points of view: though K is very clearly the key figure, there are also chapters that present the perspectives of his missing daughter (who K soon finds he did not much know, either), her husband, their torturers, the mistress of the chief of the so-called “Department for Political and Social Order” that is responsible for their fate, and so on. In other words, though the author tells us that “everything in this book is invented but almost everything happened” (169), and indeed the case presented here is very closely modelled on the disappearance of his sister, Ana Rosa Kucinski, he uses fictional license to depict what is strictly unknowable. This is perhaps most strikingly evident in the book’s account of a faculty meeting called to fire the daughter (following her disappearance) from her university post for “dereliction of duties.” As each committee member speaks, we are repeatedly told “We don’t know what was going through his mind. We can only guess” (138) or “We can imagine what was running through his head” (139) and so on, at which point the text proceeds to fill the silence, to flesh out the hollow center of inscrutable thoughts and actions around which this entire book revolves.

Unlike in Kafka, then, where the reader is left almost as frustrated and at a loss as the character, Joseph K, here the reader is given the clues at least to reconstruct the history that will forever leave Kucinski’s K guessing (and grieving). It is suggested, for instance, that K’s daughter ultimately committed suicide by biting on a cyanide capsule rather than giving in to torture and giving up her friends. Yet we must accept that this can only be a (more or less) consoling fiction, a lie of sorts, which inadvertently covers up what is truly shocking about K’s story: that it can never really be complete.

Vista desde una acera

molano_vista

Colombian Fernando Molano died (of AIDS-related causes), aged thirty-seven, in 1998. Some years later, one of his friends found the draft of the novel he was writing in his final years: Vista desde una acera (“View from a Sidewalk”), which was then published in 2012. This is an autobiographical account of growing up poor and gay in Bogotá, of sexual awakening and young love, and (intercut with this Bildungsroman narrative) of caring for a boyfriend with AIDS in the face of homophobia and hostility at the hospital and beyond. It’s a plea for freedom and tolerance imbued with deep romanticism.

The book both opens and concludes with the boyfriend’s diagnosis, as ultimately the sections that describe the narrator’s past catch up with the diary-like sections that are set in an urgent present of battling for better treatment and for the right to be recognized as carer and lover. As such, the book is formally coherent and comes to a logical end. Its final line is a succinct send-off: “And that was all” (249). On the other hand, there are also signs that the manuscript was left unfinished at its author’s death. Towards the end, it is increasingly ragged and uneven, not least when it includes a long digression (supposedly an essay co-written by the narrator and his boyfriend) on the problem of defining poetry. There are also disquisitions on the guerrilla and on the fate of the public university that feel like material for essays and disrupt the narrative flow. Yet of course there is nothing that disturbs that flow so much as the disease itself, even if it is also what makes the writing feel so urgent and necessary, as an effort to memorialize a life before it finally slips away.

Indeed, though this is a book that is written under the sign of death–a double death, in fact, both the author’s and the boyfriend’s–it’s striking that it has far more to say about life and, above all, love. Molano presents himself (and his protagonist) as unabashedly romantic, and he’s prepared to run the risk of appearing somewhat kitsch as a result. “It’s always somewhat sad,” he tells us, “to see how among men love was seen as something repugnant” (207). He sees lovelessness or (even) an antipathy towards love wherever he looks: whether in his parents’ marriage or in his account of most gay hook-ups, whose focus is the immediacy of desire rather than long-term affection. Not that Molano (or his narrator) is indifferent or opposed to desire; far from it. But his “dream,” as he tells us, is “to belong to someone who would truly love me” (233). And for his beloved he would do almost anything–and ultimately has to do so, faced with the contempt and moral opprobrium attached to the stigma of AIDS.

In the end, then, Vista desde una acera is the story of a love that dares to speak its name. Challenged by repeated oblique insinuations as to his rights to stay with his boyfriend at the hospital, the narrator casts aside any masks or pretence: “Look [. . .] you know perfectly well who I am. I’m his friend, I’m his lover, I’m his boyfriend, I’m his companion: whatever you want to call it. So I don’t know why you’re asking me. As to what I’m doing here, it seems obvious to me. He’s very sick, he’s close to death, it’s natural that I should want to be with him, no?” (198). The entire book is written in the voice of someone who feels he has nothing to hide, and who has little sympathy with those who do, whether they be hypocritical heteros or closeted gays.

I am not the only one to note that there’s more than an echo here of The Catcher in the Rye, even though Salinger is not on the list of the narrator and his boyfriend’s idolized writers (who range, instead, from Dickens to Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Whitman, Borges, and Wilde [241]). Molano’s rage is against what Holden Caulfield called “phonies,” and he has little of contemporary queer theory’s interest in the performativity that attends any claim to identity. For Molano’s narrator, there is no doubt as to who he is, and his stake is in his own sense of what is natural and authentic. As with Caulfield, there is something almost adolescent about some of his literary and political positions. His Romanticism (aesthetic as much as interpersonal) is quite straightforward, and it is no wonder that, in the essayistic sections towards the end of the book, he rails against the “postmodernity” that, he claims, brings with it “a type of devaluation [of] human things, such as poetry or love” (241).

The irony is that Molano’s own text is far from poetic; in fact, as Héctor Abad Faciolince’s (excellent) postface notes, the prose here is almost militantly anti-literary (256). Unpolished, unfinished, and uneven, devolving into a patchwork of genres, one might even call this book (despite itself) somewhat postmodern. And still, despite Molano’s fears, the sense of love prevails.

A brief video essay about Molano, and a longer interview with the writer are both available on YouTube.

Crimes of August

fonseca_crimes

Crisis in Brazil, with politicians up to their necks in corruption and a popular modernizing president forced out amid intrigue, violence, and scandal… Rubem Fonseca’s thriller Crimes of August, though first published (as Agosto) in 1990, couldn’t perhaps be more timely.

But the year is 1954 and the president is Getúlio Vargas, the legendary populist leader and the country’s longest-serving non-royal head of state, in the third year of his second period in power, following elections in 1951. It was in his earlier presidencies that Vargas had done most to reshape Brazil: first installed (in a bloodless coup) in 1930, then establishing a new constitution in 1934 and holding on to power (against that constitution’s provisions) from 1937 to 1945, he had announced the formation of a “New State” (“Estado Novo”) that combined features of a Welfare State, nationalizing key industries and promoting social security and workers’ rights, with a style of government and centralization of power reminiscent of Italian fascism. Indeed, under Vargas in the late 1930s Brazil had flirted with the Axis powers of Italy and Nazi Germany, until ultimately, in part thanks to the influence of Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy, entering World War Two on the Allied side, and sending a small expeditionary force to the Italian front in late 1944. So Vargas is a complex and ambiguous figure, claimed by Left and Right alike, who is most associated with Brazil’s transformation from a plantation-based economy to an emergent industrial power.

By 1954, however, Vargas’s reformist energies were running out of steam, to some extent a victim of their own success, and he himself was no longer the intimidating autocrat he had once been. Thus though Vargas is nominally at the center of Fonseca’s novel, in that it revolves around his final weeks and a crisis that ends only with the president’s suicide (a self-inflicted gunshot to this chest, in his pajamas, in his quarters in the presidential palace), from the outset of the narrative the president is effectively absent. Very early on in the book, we see his bodyguard, late at night, approach Vargas’s bedroom door and we are told that on the other side, “sitting on the bed, his shoulders bowed, [. . .] was the person he protected, an insomniac, pensive, fragile old man: Getúlio Vargas, president of the Republic” (2). Hearing nothing through the door, however, the bodyguard assumes that his boss is sleeping, and withdraws. Similarly, as the book continues, Vargas is barely visible and almost entirely mute throughout. It is as though he were already one of the “ghosts” that populate the “stupid succession of random events, [the] inept and incomprehensible confusion of falsity, fictitious inferences, [and] illusions” that (we are later told) constitute history (250).

Into this confusion, then, and in lieu of the president as protagonist, Fonseca inserts a fictional creation of his own: Alberto Mattos, police inspector and detective, whose traits include his love of opera and his constant drinking of milk and chewing of anti-acid tablets. Mattos has many cases on his plate (no wonder he has an ulcer!), embedded in an institutional morass at a police station whose cells are overflowing with both presumed and convicted criminals. But his focus here is on the (fictional) messy murder of an industrialist, which turns out to be intricately connected to the (real) killing of an Air Force officer as part of the (again, real) botched assassination of a journalist who is one of Vargas’s most forthright critics. At one point, for instance, Mattos suspects Vargas’s bodyguard of bumping off the industrialist when in fact (spoiler alert!) he is responsible for the attack on the journalist. But there are more enough murderers to go around. At the end of the book (again, spoiler alert!) Mattos has two assassins on his own trail: one gets to him first, but the other is hot on his heels and also takes the credit (and the payment) for doing the job. More generally, just about everyone is complicit in something in some way: politicians, cops, gangsters, businessmen, military officers (and their many women–wives, lovers, prostitutes, madams) are all tightly bound to each other in a densely intimate network of corruption and connection.

Mattos’s most fictional attribute is surely the fact that he is the prototypical “straight cop” who refuses to take payment or bribes while all around him are on the make. But he can never fully maintain his distance when his ex-girlfriend is now married to one of the prime conspirators (who is having an affair with the industrialist’s now-widow), while his current on-again off-again fling is also involved with the middleman for a Japanese syndicate’s political bribery. Mattos is forever trying to do the right thing, declaring that his sole allegiance is to the truth, but it turns out that he gets even one of his simpler cases wrong, inadvertently causing the death of an innocent old man. In response to complaints from the dead man’s son, who had allowed his father to take the blame for the crime, the detective declares that “Things are never the way they are, that’s life” (252). His last act as a policemen is to set all the prisoners (convicted or not) free from their overcrowded cells, as though to abandon any attempt to determine the distinction between guilt and innocence.

When “things are never the way they are,” it would seem that there are few certainties. Except that “Brazil goes on,” says the president himself, in what is quoted as a speech that may or may not be fictional. The lines between history and fiction are inevitably blurred when history is represented as a jumble of falsity, fiction, and illusion that’s incomprehensible even to the most level-headed of investigators. But some things do stay the same, even as everything (also) shifts and blurs: “Don’t think you can change,” another character is quoted as saying, as he invokes the French maxim: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (246). So the novel as a whole suggests that Vargas’s “New State” perhaps didn’t fundamentally transform the country; it was unequal and corrupt before, and it remains so still. Moreover, Fonseca’s recourse to this history of political crisis seventy years ago is no doubt designed to indicate that we continue to be somehow stuck with the same issues that confounded both the real Vargas and the fictional Mattos. Hence the novel’s potential contemporary relevance, even though many–such as, here, Mattos’s ex-girlfriend who burns her diary because she would prefer to forget (259)–might not want to make the connections.

But if the ghost of Vargas haunts this book, it also ambiguously and ambivalently haunts the present: he represents the promise of change, even if that promise has consistently been betrayed, and even if it may be the threat of something worse.

Quién quiere ser madre

nanclares_madre

The title of Silvia Nanclares’s book, Quién quiere ser madre–“Who Wants to be Mother”–is ambiguous, hovering somewhere between statement and question. On the one hand, it could be read as a phrase in apposition with the name of the author, describing and qualifying her: “Silvia Nanclares, who wants to be mother.” On the other hand, the pronoun “quien” (“who”) carries an accent, which in Spanish indicates that it is part of a question, the issue still up in the air: “Who wants to be mother?” Yet there is no question mark. We might imagine, then, the phrase to be grammatically incomplete, indicating an indirect question dependent on a missing main verb that readers have to supply for themselves: Tell me (perhaps) or I wonder or I don’t know “who wants to be mother.” The question itself, then, would be the object of enquiry.

And so it is that the book unfolds, following the efforts of one Silvia Nanclares to conceive as she enters her forties. Having, like so many of her generation of young(ish), middle-class professionals, postponed parenthood for the sake of career and (other forms of) life experience, she suddenly feels that it is now or never as she hears her “biological clock” ticking ever louder. She is motivated also by starting a relationship with a man with whom she can (finally) imagine herself having a child. But perhaps above all by the fact that her father has just died, which gets her to thinking about parenthood and inheritance, the passage of time and the transmission of life. Ever since his death, she wants to tell her mother (but doesn’t), she can “think about nothing else” (85). Indeed, the book is the story of an obsession–a personal obsession that is also both generational and cultural–with the idea of becoming a mother. As such, this is at the same time the story of what often feels like madness, of a longing that Nanclares can never be quite sure is really her own.

My student, Olga Albarrán, has written about this longing in her excellent dissertation, (Pro)Creación: Discursos de la maternidad. But let me add a few thoughts…

The question “Who wants to be mother?” (as opposed to “Who wants to be a mother?”) suggests a social situation, a dinner maybe, at which no mothers are actually present. Who wants to be mother… who wants to take on the role that mothers so often take or are assigned, such as serving out the food? It tells us that motherhood is precisely that: a role, a performance, a function in the domestic economy that could be fulfilled by others (even if it usually isn’t). Motherhood is, in short, both a cultural construction and also a form of play-acting, in which you are not being (quite) true to yourself. Perhaps this, too, is why Nanclares fears becoming a mother as much as she obsessively desires it: because it would mean becoming other, giving up on some sense of herself as independent, in control, self-defining. Becoming a mother, after all, would mean succumbing to the script that she and her thirty- or forty-something friends had hoped they had escaped. It would mean becoming (like) their own mothers.

But as much as motherhood is a cultural construction, it is also still stubbornly biological, as Nanclares is soon very much aware. Month after month she finds that she is not (yet) pregnant, even though she and her boyfriend try, with ever more dedication, to do everything right: she researches the details of the process of insemination, fertilization, implantation, and what can go wrong and how; she learns to discern the days that she is ovulating and the period when she is most fertile; the two of them install apps on their phones to help them calculate (and remind them) when they should get to their procreative “duties”; she takes folic acid, and they both strive to eat better and live healthier; they consult dieticians and doctors, and investigate the possibilities of artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization. The biological fact that they run into such difficulties conceiving drives them increasingly back towards culture: to the advice and folk remedies of friends and family; to online discussion forms and self-help groups; and to technology and the healthcare system. But above all it prompts Nanclares to write.

Writing, she tells us, is “once again, what will save [her] from all obsessions” (93). It is the only way she knows of praying (14). But perhaps most importantly, it is her job: as a magazine journalist, she “live[s] from writing” (189). And if she can’t have a baby, at least she can write about the process of trying to have one. For always intertwined with her biological and personal uncertainties (will she get pregnant? Does she really want to?) is the tale of her employment insecurity and economic precarity, in the aftermath of the financial crisis that rocked Spain more than almost any other European country. She and her friends have postponed motherhood for the sake of careers and independence, but in fact in the context of neoliberal austerity there are no more careers, and they are forever dependent on the next grant, the next freelance contract, the next opportunity to tide them over to the next paycheck. Perhaps this is precisely the reason why when Nanclares writes (in the first instance, in an entry on Facebook) about her frustrated attempts to conceive, she seems to touch a nerve and her post goes viral. Her editor takes an interest, encouraging her to write a blog, perhaps she can have a regular column, a permanent contract.

Nanclares is torn: does she really want to expose her and her boyfriend’s problems in this way? And perversely, the longer her tribulations, the more material she’ll have to write about. But to “find [her]self out of work now,” more than ever, “would be fatal” (133). She’s capitalizing on (monetizing) her own infertility, but in the end that’s all she has to fall back on. The conjunction of her father’s death and the loss of jobs for life and the safety net of the welfare state teach her that “at a certain point, we are body. Nothing but our bodies” (141). If other young women market their eggs (and men, their sperm) to survive, Nanclares can sell what she imagines as her own dried-up ovaries (like “raisins”). In a sort of bioeconomics, she is making her private life productive, even if it means selling out her friends’ privacy, too: one tersely texts her, “When I asked you not to say a word about my embryo transfer, I didn’t mean that you could tell all the newspaper’s subscribers about it” (151).

And so the blog that Nanclares is writing is (inevitably) entitled “Quién quiere ser madre,” and we discover by the end of the book (spoiler alert!) that she still hasn’t got pregnant but that she has, well, finished this book, which she describes with the terminology of natural reproduction: it “gestated for thirty-eight weeks, from the middle of November, 2015, to the beginning of September, 2016” (213). She has also given up (for the time being, at least) on the reproductive pact that she signed with her boyfriend at the outset of her quest. Indeed, she seems to have given up on pacts in general and to have embraced the uncertainty that otherwise plagues her throughout the narrative: “Life designed and controlled as a future plan doesn’t exist,” she tells us, adding that this is a lesson learned from her “father when he left us without any prior notice” (211). So Nanclares tries to make this moral a universal one, of life and death as the timeless condition of the cosmos. But there’s no doubt that it is a conclusion more quickly drawn by millennials today than by previous generations. And perhaps the fashion for so-called “autofiction” such as Nanclares’s novel (but also, for instance, Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle) is a way of trying to come to terms with that: when all else is precarious, at least I can still write my self and my habits into being.

Unjustified: Brazil, Politics, and Trade

An edited version of this post was published on the CBC.

“Unjustified: Brazil, Politics, and Trade”

bolsonaro2

With the election of former paratrooper Jair Bolsonaro to the Brazilian presidency, the far right has taken power in Latin America’s largest and most populous country, with one of the world’s largest economies. How, if at all, should Canada and Canadian business react? A recent report for CBC News charted economic opportunities with this new regime, noting that “a Bolsonaro presidency could open new investment opportunities, especially in the resource sector, finance and infrastructure, as he has pledged to slash environmental regulations in the Amazon rainforest and privatize some government-owned companies.” But diving in for the sake of short-term financial profit would be ethically irresponsible and politically catastrophic. Bolsonaro unashamedly praises the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for twenty years, from 1964 to 1985. If we proceed as though it were business as usual, we would normalize his breach of a long-standing democratic consensus.

Every economic transaction is always also a political transaction, and this is nowhere more true than in the realm of international trade and foreign investment. Governments have long combined commercial deals with strategic objectives: from the nineteenth-century opium wars, in which the Royal Navy fought to open China to British merchants, to the recent renegotiation of NAFTA, politics and economics go hand in hand. But at least since the Second World War, a sense of politics as more than simply national self-interest has also been part of the discourse around trade. For instance, US post-war economic assistance to Western Europe (the Marshall Plan) was designed to reinforce liberal democracy by ensuring economic recovery and removing the temptation of more radical solutions, i.e. to ward off the Communist threat. This Cold War logic framed international trade for forty years: the Soviet Union provided economic and military assistance to its satellites, while the United States did deals with dictators and other unsavory regimes (in Guatemala, Iran, the Philippinnes…) where it considered it necessary for the broader narrative of protecting the “Free World.”

With the end of the Cold War, the narratives were modified but didn’t disappear. Ethical as well as political considerations came to the fore in arguments either for or against economic engagement. Both Left and Right would sometimes argue that sanctions and embargoes would better effect political transformation (in apartheid South Africa or Communist Cuba) and sometimes claim that integration into international norms was better served by the exchange of ideas and attitudes that accompanies the traffic in goods and services. In the Clinton era, preferential trade relations with China (“most favoured nation” status) were justified, despite concerns over human rights abuses, on the grounds that engagement encouraged openness and increasing liberalization, sidelining hardliners within the regime. Similar arguments have, until very recently, sought to justify economic contracts with middle-eastern states such as Saudi Arabia. Of course, sometimes–often, even–such justifications would be denounced as a cover for economic interests. Few, for example, believe that the Gulf War of 1990/91 was really about freedom for Kuwaitis rather than oil for the US and its coalition partners. But the point is that, however paper-thin they were, those justifications had to be in place. Trade and military intervention alike demanded a broader story of progress or development that went beyond naked self-interest.

The private sector started telling similar tales. Most notably, the tech entrepreneurs and start-ups of Silicon Valley, at the same time as they amassed unheralded fortunes (and showed a marked disinclination to pay corporate taxes), marketed their activites in terms of social change: Apple adverts featured images of figures such as Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King alongside the slogan ‘Think Different”; Google’s slogan was “Don’t be Evil”; and Facebook tells us that its mission is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” In the face of evidence of the effects of their rampant destruction of environments and livelihoods on vulnerable populations and an ever more vulnerable planet, even behemoths of an industry such as resource extraction have followed suit: British Petroleum adopted a green and yellow logo suggestive more of horticulture than oil wells; mining giants everywhere spoke of community benefits and their need to secure a “social license to operate.”

All this is now changing. Countries and corporations increasingly dispense with such exculpatory formulas. The key figure is doubtless Donald Trump, who more than anyone has reinforced the centrality of trade to politics, whether domestic or international, but no longer in the service of any narrative of liberal progress. His mantra “Make America Great Again” inverts the age-old adage of “private vice, public virtue” to assert that the only political rationale necessary is self-interest. It is in this context that Brazil’s lurch to the right can be welcomed as an investment opportunity, and its environmental and political consequences be cast to the wind. The sense that some broader narrative or political justification is required has faded.

In much of Latin America, the overarching political narrative of the past thirty years has been “Never Again.” Just as post-war European politics has been marked by the collective decision never to return to the internecine conflict (and horrors such as the Holocaust) of the First and Second World Wars, likewise the ground of political debate and policy in the Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile, Brazil) and elsewhere has been a social consensus, shared by all parties and sectors, that a return to the authoritarian regimes of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s should be unthinkable. “Never Again” (“Nunca Más” in Spanish; “Nunca Mais” in Portuguese) was the title of the reports on human rights abuses published in Argentina and Brazil. But with his open praise of the dictatorship, and in dedicating his vote in favor of impeaching his elected predecessor, Dilma Roussef, to a colonel convicted of human rights abuses including torture and forced disappearances, new president Jair Bolsonaro is dramatically breaking that pact in favour of democracy. In the absence of any other narrative, then, Canadian engagement (political or economic) that takes advantage of his election for short-term gain inevitably becomes complicit in this broader story of democracy’s decline.