Some posts about the Andean novel, to go with a course by that name:
From the opening of Jorge Icaza’s novel Huasipungo, set in early twentieth-century Ecuador, the landowner, Alfonso Pereira, is presented as treading on precarious ground. He has stormed out of his house in bad humour, faced with problems that are both familial and financial: his daughter is pregnant with her indigenous boyfriend; and meanwhile he is also faced with debts and unpaid taxes. His head filled with these concerns, he is about to cross the street only to be nearly run over by a car that leaves him “trying to regain his balance on the edge of the pavement” (9). And indeed, the story that follows is the tale of Pereira’s attempts to “regain his balance” even if they involve ever-more extreme measures and grotesque abuses of the people who live on his land. Balance remains in short supply even at the end.
Pereira is presented as an almost comic character: flustered and maladroit; in over his head in the management of his family and his estate. But it is soon clear that there is a not-so-funny side to this cartoon buffoonery. On the advice of his uncle (and major creditor), Pereiras travels to his hacienda in the highlands, reluctant wife and daughter in tow, where he will, with yet more borrowed money, buy up land–and the indigenous that come with it–to build a road to the capital. The plan is to smooth the way for a firm of US prospectors, led by one “Mr Chapy,” who are apparently interested in extracting lumber from the interior–though in fact they are rather more keen on the possibility of drilling for oil. With the payout that ensues, Pereira hopes that his troubles will be at an end. And the novel shows that he will stop at nothing to ensure this happy resolution.
On the journey to the highlands, the road still as-yet unbuilt, Pereira and his family find themselves stymied by a muddy path that not even their mules can traverse. The landowner therefore calls on the indigenous servants, for them to become literally beasts of burden by carrying the Pereiras on their backs. Still persecuted by anxiety about his own troubles, and so utterly thoughtless of the weight he is placing on others’ shoulders, Pereira gives a start and causes the man carrying him to lose his footing and tumble to the ground. “Stupid Indian!” [“¡Indio pendejo!”], the master cries out “hopelessly” [“desesperado”], digging his spurs into the man’s ribs (14). His self-absorption and helplessness are hardly a joking matter now.
The name of the man who has to bear this humiliating punishment is Andrés Chiliquinga, and as the story unfolds he becomes exemplary of the suffering that the indigenous are forced to endure in the name of the landowner’s zeal to recover his economic balance, and of the gringos’ promise to bring modernization and development. Andrés first endures a horrific injury while helping to clear the land. Then his wife dies an agonizing death after eating the rotten meat that, with Pereira’s refusal to dole out the customary recompense for their otherwise unpaid labour, is all that the indigenous have to subsist on. And once the road is finally built, both he and his son die trying to protect their “huasipungo,” their small parcel of land, and its hut from being torn down to make room for the houses and offices that Mr Chapy proposes to build in their place.
In the face of all this oppression, the indigenous do not go down without a fight, rallying around the slogan “¡Ñucanchic huasipungo!”: “Our huasipungo.” And the final lines of the book suggests that this cry will resonate around the Andes. But here, at least, their cause is hopeless. But even in his victory, or perhaps especially in his victory, Pereira remains as precariously perched as ever: standing on a wall alongside Mr Chapy to look out over “the vast plain of the highlands” (113), he is once again carried away with emotion and ends up falling down once more amid “clouds of dust” to the laughter of his gringo companion (114). “We know not where we are treading” [“no sabemos donde pisamos”] is the moral he draws from this, which could be a reference to the subterranean deposits that have been driving this entire enterprise. But it may also be a delayed glimpse of the fact that, in clearing the indigenous from the land and speeding up the transition from feudalism to a capitalism dominated by foreign corporations, the hapless Pereira has simply been undermining the ground from under his own feet.
In trying to secure his position, he has achieved the opposite: he has destroyed his future by neglecting to recognize the immense indigenous contribution to the good fortune he has taken for granted. Now who will carry him through the mud?
Towards the end of Clorinda Matto de Turner’s Aves sin nido (1889), the mestizo couple Fernando and Lucía Marín, who are in effect the book’s heroes, because they are sufficiently enlightened to take pity on Peru’s indigenous peoples, are shown leaving the highland town of Kíllac where most of the novel’s plot is set. With them are two young indigenous girls, Margarita and Rosalía, their daughters who they are adopting because their parents have died, victims of violence stirred up by the town’s local authorities. There is no place for them in Kíllac, which is (as another character has declared, pages earlier) “barbaric” (49) and perhaps beyond salvation. If there is a future for the girls, it can only be in Lima, the nation’s capital and “antechamber of Heaven” from which can be glimpsed “the throne of Glory and Fortune” (80). Just as much to the point, moreover, is the fact that the Maríns themselves are hardly safe in the Andes. It was their efforts on behalf of the indigenous that provoked the disturbance in which the girls’ parents were killed. It’s time to get out of Dodge.
Along the way, headed for the train that is to be both the vehicle of their escape and potent symbol of the modernity that Kíllac so notably lacks, Fernando and Lucía mull over the dramatic events that have led them to this point. “What do you think of the things that happen?” the wife asks her husband. “I’m stunned just thinking back over the coincidences,” he replies. “Ah! Life is a novel” (140).
But life is not, of course, a novel. And when characters within a novel are made to protest otherwise, rather than heightening the realism of the events depicted, such claims instead undercut it by reminding us that it is, after all, a literary construction that we hold in our hands. The fact that the book needs to tell us that life can assume the shape of a novel is a sure sign that somehow it is failing to show us convincingly that the tale it tells is lifelike. Here, indeed, it is as though Matto de Turner were trying to prepare us for the hardly plausible plot twist with which her book ends. For it turns out that Margarita, too, is mestiza; her true father, as divulged in her mother’s dying breath, is Kíllac’s former parish priest. Worse still, her suitor, a young man named Manuel who is following along behind the family and hopes to ask the Maríns for their adopted daughter’s hand in marriage, turns out to be hiding the very same secret: he too is the lascivious priest’s bastard offspring. The would-be newly-weds are brother and sister! And with the revelation of that shocking coincidence, worthy as much of a telenovela as of a novel, the book’s plot eventually comes grinding to a halt. After all, novels end even if life has to go on.
Yet perhaps there is something lifelike (and indeed, not very novelistic) about this story’s strange and rather abrupt conclusion. For novels customarily end with some kind of resolution: a birth, a death, or a wedding, for instance. By refusing such a tidy ending, by ensuring through the scarcely believable device of making her young lovers siblings that there will be no marriage here, Matto de Turner is perhaps highlighting the artificiality of the novel form. Aves sin nido is true to life, and to Peru’s “Indian problem,” in its final recognition that it has no pat answers. Heaven can wait, as the glimpse of the throne of Glory is snatched away.
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” ). 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.
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.
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.
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.
Francisco 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.