Blind Date


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Long Night of White Chickens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Belly of the Horse


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”.


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



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


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


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.