Discovery Passages

morse_discovery-passagesAs part of an epigraph to one of the poems in his collection Discovery Passages, Garry Thomas Morse quotes Armand Garnet Ruffo as saying that “poetry [. . .] will make us who are doomed live forever” (79). And indeed there is often a sense of doom in this book, not least in the long, central poem that consists of fragments (apparently) taken from the archive of colonial regulation in early twentieth-century British Columbia. Here we are presented with disjointed words and phrases from the reports of those charged with enforcing the British ban on the native potlatch, and with carting away (and selling) to museums indigenous artifacts and possessions. From “Wm. M Halliday, Indian Agent,” for instance, on November 20, 1918: “give / away / against / the act / persist / no choice / compelled / prosecuted / govern / accordingly” (36). Later, in 1922, from what appears to be a letter to “Duncan C. Scott, Deputy Superintendent, Indian Aff[ai]rs”: “with / regard / material / surrendered / piled / in my / wood / shed / present / time // 300 / cubic / feet / masks / bead / dresses / other / pot / latch / gear” (45). In a systematic policy of appropriation, everything that might be given away is instead taken, to ensure that there is no surplus or excess that could be redistributed. No wonder that in Latin America, the settlements to which the Spanish assigned the indigenous were called “reducciones” or reductions. Styled now as poetry, the colonial record accounts for “articles [that] / are now / beyond / recall J. D. McLean, Asst. Deputy & Sec., Sept. 20, 1922” (56).

Yet despite this dispiriting logic of colonial reduction and rationalization, which aims to leave the indigenous with no more than what they can subsist on, this is also a book that is full of life. Elsewhere, indeed, it portrays poetry as precisely that excessiveness that can never quite be reduced to rational need, as a recovered surplus that spreads across the stolen land: “In other words it is my ancestral right, atavistically speaking, to sing & flood the space with poems & stuff,” Morse declares (107). “You forget,” he tells us in a poem entitled “Potlatch,” “I am other / Multitudes” (15). The British tried even to take away indigenous languages: the final poem, titled “500 lines” in the manner of a schoolhouse punishment, consists almost entirely of the repeated injunction to be interiorized, “I will not speak Kwak’wala. / I will not speak Kwak’wala. / I will not speak Kwak’wala. / …” (114-125). But they proved unable to take away indigenous language, as Morse’s book–and indeed what is practically an outpouring of recent First Nations poetry–goes to show. Discovery Passages does effectively contain Whitmanesque multitudes, multiple styles, multiple voices, from would-be passengers frustratedly waiting for a ferry to documentary film-makers endlessly interrupted, to an almost comic turn at a New York anthropological museum that riffs on Leonard Cohen while demanding the return of indigenous cultural patrimony: “First we take Manhattan / then we take B.C.” (101). This is poetry that sprawls over the page, resistant and rebellious, and can never quite be constricted or brought into line.

Morse comes from the Kwakwakaʼwakw, whose traditional territories are in the Campbell River region of Vancouver Island, Quadra Island, and the neighbouring “Discovery Islands.” “Discovery Passage” itself lies between Quadra and Vancouver Island. His point, of course, is that these claims to discovery, preserved on the cartography of British Columbia, were doubly presumptuous: not only did the native peoples and their territory need no discovering; but the European explorers and subsequent colonial bureaucrats and settlers and even the anthropologists who were the handmaidens of their despoliation (it is here, after all, where Frank Boas effectively founded American anthropology) left so much undiscovered, which continues defiantly if fugitively to this day. It is perhaps then only fitting that the latest indigenous figure to spring a surprise by publicly unsettling the settlers, by refusing to stay within the lines, is also associated with the Kwakwakaʼwakw: former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould, recently expelled by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from the Liberal Party, who is a member of the We Wai Kai Nation, on the east side of Quadra.

Friends, Enemies, and Others

bercowPresented at “Theologies of the Political: From Augustine to Agamben, and Beyond”
UBC Medieval Workshop
Green College, UBC, 29-30 March, 2019

“Friends, Enemies, and Others: Political Theology and the Art of the Encounter”

To adopt a phrase from the liturgy of monarchical succession: Political theology is dead, long live political theology. In what follows, the argument I hope to sketch out concerns the link between sovereignty and politics. For Carl Schmitt, who first coined the phrase “political theology,” this link is fundamental. Schmitt defines sovereignty as the ascription of a singular point that has the power to decide over the exception, and politics in terms of the dyadic distinction between friend and enemy that such an ascription frames and enables. I argue, by contrast, that this link is broken (if it ever functioned), that there is no such singular point (if there ever was), and that the friend/enemy distinction is, and always has been, a misleading distortion.

Along the way, I will not even pretend to be a medievalist, for which I hope you will forgive me. The case study that I will be analyzing, through which I will be reading Schmitt’s concepts, is about as contemporary as one could imagine: it is the ongoing legislative uncertainty around Britain’s projected withdrawal from the European Union, an event that should have happened yesterday but which may now take place on April 12 or May 22, or sometime, or never. Brexit is an unusually odd and complex affair; it is, in every sense, exceptional. But it is an exception that does not ground traditional conceptions of sovereignty (as Schmitt would have it); it radically undermines them. And I argue that Brexit is symptomatic, that it tells us something about the limits of political theology today (and perhaps always), and not only in the UK.

One response to this dilemma might be to jettison political theology. In the end, however, I suggest (all too briefly and cryptically) that political theology can still be redeemed, perhaps via a return if not to the Middle Ages (though Geoff Koziol’s discussion of ninth- to eleventh-century insurrections suggests that the Carolingian era might provide fertile ground) then at least to the Early Modern, and to a counter-tradition that has run parallel to the contractualist orthodoxy that is now utterly exhausted.

Read more… (PDF)

The Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies: Opening the Dialogue

Presented at an Open Forum for the Interim Director of the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies. March 11, 2019. Also available as a PDF and as slides. See the recording and Q&A (starts around 14:50).

wall-instituteI start by acknowledging that we are on land taken from its original indigenous Musqueam inhabitants. Also that this is a public university supported by the peoples of British Columbia. We therefore have responsibilities as an institution of higher education and research, and we should better justify what we do on this land with that money.

Though today’s dialogue is part of the search for an interim director for the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, what I hope we can embark on, and continue tomorrow and Friday, is an open reflection on the role of the Institute, on its relationship to the university, and also on the responsibilities of the university to the world beyond.

These relationships are homologous. The dynamic between Institute and University can provide a model for the dynamic between the university and society as a whole. Neither relationship is easy. Indeed, they should be marked by a productive tension, with the Institute reminding the university of its better nature, just as the university offers society ways of thinking that are not reducible to calculation or profit.

I therefore thank Santa Ono and the Institute Board for today’s event. As an outsider candidate, I may not become Interim Director, though I have much to offer. But I will be happy if I help to generate debate about the Institute and the university.

The Institute means a lot to me. My own research and understanding of scholarship have been shaped by interdisciplinary projects and centers across three continents. This impact has been direct, with for instance Milwaukee’s Center for Twentieth-Century Studies or Duke’s John Hope Franklin Center where I did my graduate work, or Manchester’s Centre for Latin American Cultural Studies that I helped to found. It has also been indirect, as my work engages with for example Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. This background explains why at UBC I have been drawn to projects such as Arts One and above all the Peter Wall Institute, an intellectual oasis that has felt like my home on campus.

So I was shocked to hear, in November, of Philippe Tortell’s resignation as Director, and alarmed to read his warning of “an existential threat to the Institute’s core mission, academic independence and capacity to catalyze truly innovative and creative research.” But we should not have been surprised. The Institute’s most recent external review tells us that this is a crisis long foretold. Even back in 2011, the review concluded that there was an opportunity to be grasped but also dangers to be avoided:

PWIAS may well be unique in the world among institutes for advanced study in having appreciably more resources than it needs for its present programs. Such a situation naturally attracts predators eager to deploy the resources for their own schemes, producing mission creep of the sort that is perhaps already discernible. [. . .] If the moment is not seized, the resources may be dissipated rather than focused, and a glorious opportunity will have been lost.

If we have indeed seen predators eyeing up the Institute’s resources, the blame must be placed not only on central administration, but also on an Institute that has not made good on its “glorious opportunity.” In a competitive environment where money, space, and time are scarce, the onus is on the Institute to show leadership, principle, and vision.

Yet the moment has not yet passed. The Institute can still become all it can be, pressing the university to live up to its better self.

Right now, the Wall Institute is seen as a problem. The directorship particularly is a poisoned chalice. No wonder, in that so many have come and gone in so little time: the tenure of an Institute Director is about as long and untroubled as that of an Attorney General under Justin Trudeau. And now we will have an Interim Director, with a new external review amid an atmosphere of uncertainty and foreboding.

But the controversy around the Institute is a symptom of larger issues affecting the university as a whole, and the Institute offers a vantage point from which to address them. The Institute is less problem than solution. Or rather, part of its mission must be to keep causing problems, to trouble a university sometimes tempted to short-cuts or complacency, just as the university itself should be an unsettling force in society at large.

If there is a problem with the Institute, it is that it is not causing enough problems, not raising enough fuss. It is that, again in the words of its external reviewers, it has too often been “exceptionally inward looking and its programs [. . .] lack sufficient coherence, synergy and external impact.”

The Interim Director will have to prepare for and manage the Institute’s upcoming external review. We cannot second-guess that review’s conclusions. But we can build on the previous review’s conclusions, to articulate basic principles, which apply as much to the university as to the Institute, and we can start a discussion to feed into the process.
The last review stressed impact, synergy, coherence, and internationalism; I will add openness.

1. Impact. The Institute should make an impact by proposing directions for academic research. It should take a lead and give substance to its programming. At present, in providing grants on any topic, across the university, it tends to follow rather than to lead, hoping for serendipity rather than planning with a purpose. Much good work is funded by the Institute, but no wonder administrators think its funds could be aligned with clusters and the university’s strategic plan. With the help of a reconstituted Advisory Board, the Institute should take the initiative, stepping up to make a difference by advancing concepts and suggesting priorities for interdisciplinary study, freed of the constraints faced by clusters and other units.

2. Synergy. The Institute should achieve synergy by ensuring that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Its programs should be more clearly articulated with each other. At present, the connections between (say) the Wall Scholars and the Research Roundtables or the Associates’ dinner talks tend to be accidental rather than considered. But in a given year, or as part of a multi-year track, they could contribute to a common program. There would still be room for contingency, but in the context of a focussed agenda designed for impact and coherence. The Institute should also have postdoctoral positions and a role for graduate students, to enhance its networks and to offer training in advanced study.

3. Coherence. The Institute should ensure coherence by promoting projects that directly address disciplinary boundaries. It should acknowledge the difficulty of interdisciplinary collaboration. At present, with the laudable intention of inclusivity, it tends to assume that interdisciplinarity is merely a matter of getting the right people in a room together. But this leads to superficial exchanges at worst, and discussions of administrative or institutional issues at best, rather than real conceptual production. Reflection on and critique of academic and institutional life is important, but it is only one part of the Institute’s remit. The Institute should be a place where advanced study actually happens.

4. Internationalism. The Institute is rooted in its local context, and should make the most of its location, but it also needs to be international in scope. Like the university, at present it is often global in aspiration but parochial in practice. Its international visiting research scholars and roundtables, as well as colloquia abroad, enable the mobilization of scholarship, but for brief periods and without much integration with other programs. Wall scholarships need to be opened up to international competition. A program of postdoctoral fellowships, plus the incorporation of graduate students, will ensure the Institute’s impact by helping to form generations of scholars who will draw on their experience at the Institute as they take up positions around the world.

5. Openness. The Institute needs to be open and outward-looking in every way. It has been described as a “taste of first class” within the university, just as the university itself is often seen as a privileged “ivory tower,” but it must shed that aura of exclusivity. Its relationship with the communities in which it is embedded should be marked by collaboration, rather than either defensiveness or one-way, top-down knowledge transmission, even as it defends its autonomy and insists that the logic of enquiry is distinct from the logics of policy or capital accumulation. It should draw on and contribute to the many external resources for conceptualizing common problems, rather than purporting to offer finished solutions. It should have critique as well as self-critique at its heart.

One might add other principles. I could say more about critique, or add that the Institute and the university should also, for instance, be democratic, autonomous, diverse, and conservative. But these five are surely a good start.

In conclusion, the challenges facing the Peter Wall Institute, like those facing UBC, are steep. The two cannot be at loggerheads. The Institute is the product of a pioneering if sometimes delicate partnership between the university and the private sector, in the name of principles of advanced study that go beyond either. Stressing impact, synergy, and coherence, internationalism and openness, we need to rethink the interconnections of Institute, University, and society as a whole. We need to work on concepts with which to raise problems that unsettle our understandings of the world in which we live.

Now I look forward to hearing from you, and from the other two nominees.

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El mundo es ancho y ajeno II

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The second half of Ciro Alegría’s El mundo es ancho y ajeno is much more fragmented and dislocated than the first. This is evident even on a formal level: each chapter is shorter; we jump between storylines, often never to return; there are also temporal leaps and breathless attempts to catch up with the plot. At times, especially towards the end, it even feels as though the novel is simply running out of steam. After so much effort spent lyrically evoking the rhythms of communal life in the Andes, once the community breaks up and many of its inhabitants disperse to the four corners of Peru, Alegría only has time and energy for quick vignettes, snapshots of the indigenous people’s precarious destinies once they have been forced off their ancestral lands. Some of the former comuneros find themselves elsewhere in the Andes, either on other haciendas or in the mines; others become involved in the hard and exploitative work of harvesting coca in the foothills or rubber in the rainforest. And when the book turns to update us on the whereabouts of prodigal son Benito Castro, we get a sense of life in the coastal capital and its port, Callao, and then of Castro’s subsequent military career. But this last narrative is especially truncated: we gallop through half a dozen years of military service in two pages (489-90). It is as though a clock were ticking, faster and faster, counting down breathlessly to an apocalyptic final dénouement. The old order is ending, and we barely have time to witness its final destruction, as on the novel’s final page the state brutally represses a short-lived insurrection from Rumi’s former inhabitants.

In other words, it is as though the form of the novel itself were no longer able to contain or adequately portray its ostensible subject. In fact, perhaps it never was able to do so. If El mundo es ancho y ajeno is really, as a young Mario Vargas Llosa argued eloquently shortly after Alegría’s death in 1967, Peru’s belated foundational novel, this is a foundation that is also in some sense the end of the line. It is impossible, this book’s hurried and fragmentary second half suggests, to write the national allegory of a nation whose abiding principles are the refusal to admit that half its citizens are subjects, and the brutal curtailment of any narratives they might try to construct. Or rather, the only possible story to be told, then, is the tale of indigenous destruction from the point of view of those responsible for it. The indigenista project, exemplified by Alegría himself, of telling that tale (or any other) from the other side, is doomed from the outset.

So for all the apparent realism of Alegría’s style (Vargas Llosa describes the novel as “an epic history, told with impressionistic language and strictly realist setting: an American synthesis of Victor Hugo and Zola”), it is worth attending also to the book’s metafictional moments, which are relatively few and far between but striking when they come up. Very early on, for instance, a self-reflexive narrative voice intervenes into a description of Rumi’s mayor Rosendo Maqui and his relationship with his adoptive son, curtailing and forestalling further explanation: “We, who have broader responsibilities than Maqui does, although they are undoubtedly less important, will explain what has to be explained in due time. For the moment we do not think it opportune to clarify anything…” (34). It is many hundreds of pages later before the narrative returns to the issue, and it does so through a rather strange denial of narratorial agency, with the argument that the reader should now be able to put two and two together: “We, for our part, should recall that we postponed any explanation of the mayor’s attitude towards Benito regarding his exile from the community. Now, having seen their lives over many years, we believe the matter to be clarified by the facts themselves in all their ramifications and origins” (450). So the narrator interjects, but only so as to claim that his role is somehow superfluous. It is as though the novel were marking his voice, pointing to the narrator’s existence as a standpoint outside and beyond the indigenous community, but at the same time trying to cancel it out, to suggest that here the narrative speaks for itself.

There is a similar anxiety and ambivalence at another point that is also surely self-reflexive, a passage that features three benevolent outsiders, collectively described as “odd dandies.” In fact, despite the strangeness of their manners and dress, they are serranos (highlanders) who have spent a long time on the coast and have now returned in search of local colour (to “cazar paisajes” [480]). For all three are in the business of representation, if in different ways: they are a folklorist, a writer, and a painter. We meet them amid festivities celebrated in the provincial capital. Two former Rumi inhabitants are also at the festival, and they, too, are identified in terms of their roles as cultural producers: Amadeo Illas is a storyteller, and Demetrio Sumallacta, a flautist. All this almost sounds like the set-up for a joke–”A folklorist, a writer, and a painter meet a storyteller and a flautist in a bar”–but what it leads to instead is some awkward philosophizing about the role of art and its relationship to social justice. It is hard to tell the extent to which this awkwardness is part of Alegría’s satire of these dandy do-gooders, and how much it is inherent in the novelist’s own uncertainties and faltering self-expression. It is as though he were trying to suggest a framework within which to read his novel, but at the same time distancing himself from it.

The discussion is prompted by a long tale, told by Illas, about a fox who is (literally) outfoxed by a rabbit. The fox wants to eat the rabbit, but time and again he is forced to endure one humiliation after another thanks to his prey’s quick-witted trickery. At the end, the fox is convinced that the rabbit is dead, and therefore that somehow he has triumphed, but in fact the rabbit has simply managed to escape the predator’s notice. The fox cannot even recognize him when he sees him. The three dandies listen intently to this telling and offer their interpretations: “I’d dare claim that it’s symbolic,” says one, “and that in it the fox represents the overseer, and the rabbit, the Indian. And so the Indian gains his revenge, in literary form at least.” Listening to all this, the flautist, Demetrio, is bemused. “He didn’t know if that’s what the story represented, but, really, he liked the fact that for once the poor rabbit defeated the cunning and arrogant fox.” (480). And yet, in El mundo es ancho y ajeno it is the Indian who is at every turn outwitted where he is not outgunned. So perhaps this is a book that accords more with the view of the painter, who quotes the nineteenth-century Ecuadorian essayist Juan Montalvo: “If I were to write a book about the Indian, it would make America weep” (481). If an indigenist novel cannot affirm the triumph of indigenous culture (in literary form at least), it should perhaps dedicate itself to denunciation via a claim on the reader’s affects and emotions. In any case, the writer chips in, “I say that culture cannot be detached from an operative conception of justice” (483). Listening to all this, half-drunk, the flautist Demetrio is still not sure what to say. But asked to play a tune, he gives them a song about a piece of chaff waiting for the rain, much to the delight of his listeners: “That straw is hard and long-suffering like the campesino, with whom the comparison is apt,” says the writer (484).

The dandies are well-intentioned. Whatever else he thinks, Demetrio is impressed that they speak well of the indigenous, and listening to them talk of “justice” and “mankind” alongside “Indian” makes his “heart warm” (485). But they are also condescending and high-faluting, and ultimately a little useless and pathetic. Daring us to identify him with these figures, Alegría seems to recognize that their discussion does not exactly provide the basis for a literature that would denounce and take revenge on the ongoing sufferings of Peru’s indigenous communities, just as the novel was already perhaps a form unfit for the purpose of representing Peru to itself. But for the time being, it was the best he had.

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 members of the indigenous community that is 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 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 move on from 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 undertakes 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 these 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 landlord 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

rascon-banda_contrabando

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.