Crimes of August

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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.

Unjustified: Brazil, Politics, and Trade

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

“Unjustified: Brazil, Politics, and Trade”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Problem with Silver Linings

An edited version of this post was published in The Tyee.

“The Problem with Silver Linings: The CBC and Jair Bolsonaro”

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How should Canada respond to this week’s election in Brazil? How should our media report it? An article (and tweets) on CBC, seeking good news for Canada on what many agree is a dark day for Brazil, has sparked fierce criticism. And rightly so. It was parochial, insensitive, and cynical, portraying a troubling break in Latin America’s democratic consensus as though it were business as normal.

The election was one of the most momentous in Brazil’s history: a reversal of the previous election (of 2014), which had brought the country’s first woman president, Dilma Rousseff, to power at the head of the left-wing Worker’s Party. In her youth, Rousseff had been active in armed resistance to the military dictatorship in place from 1964 to 1985. In 1970, aged 23, she was captured, detained, and repeatedly tortured over a three-year period. Now, four years later, Brazil has a president, Jair Bolsonaro, who openly supports torture, praises the dictatorship, and promises to go back to throwing leftists in jail. Not to mention his racism, sexism, and self-described homophobia. Even the Economist (hardly a journal of the Left) describes Bolsonaro as “a threat to democracy”.

The CBC knows all this. Bolsonaro has made no secret of his views. Yet alongside reporting the Canadian government’s clear disdain for this turn of events, our national broadcaster decided to put a positive spin on things: Canadian business might benefit! Senior Writer Chris Arsenault tells us: “A Bolsonaro presidency could open new investment opportunities, especially in the resource sector, finance and infrastructure, as he has pledged to slash environmental regulations in the Amazon rainforest and privatize some government-owned companies.” The CBC liked this analysis so much that it highlighted it (repeatedly) on Twitter: “Critics have lambasted the former paratrooper for his homophobic, racist and misogynist statements, but his government could open new investment opportunities”.

The CBC has since apologized (sort of), for presenting what should have been tagged as “analysis” as “news.” For his part, Arsenault has suggested that his article was a kind of satire: ” The purpose of the report is that markets are amoral”, he tells us. But not many, if any, of his readers saw this. Reaction to his article and (perhaps especially) to the tweets has been outraged: “Have you lost your minds?”; “Wtf”; “a shame”; “a journalism fail”; “irresponsible”; “gross”; “nauseating”; “awful”. A friend of mine said he was “hoping the account has been hacked”.

But let’s take Arsenault’s article at face value. What’s the problem? Doesn’t every cloud have a silver lining? Even the most monstrous regimes have their benefits: trains run on time, and so on. And why not respect the democratic will of the Brazilian people, recognize that Bolsonaro won, and “get over it”? Canada happily trades with plenty of countries (Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, China…) accused of human rights abuses and/or anti-democratic practices. Isn’t economic engagement better than sanctions or isolationism?

Here’s the problem. First, the article and tweets demonstrate a stunning parochialism. They remind me of the apocryphal headline said to have run in a Scottish newspaper following one of the twentieth century’s most famous disasters: “Titanic Sinks! Dundee Man Feared Lost!” Whatever one thinks of Bolsonaro, this narrow-minded Canadian take on the impending transformation of Latin America’s largest country likewise spectacularly misses the real story, which is not really about us at all. If we want to think in hemispheric terms (and we should), it would be better to consider the broader narrative of the region’s mixed response to a history of state violence and the now imperilled fortunes of its more recent efforts to redistribute wealth and opportunity.

Second, the focus on advantages to be gained by select Canadian businesses (above all, in resource extraction) shows a worrying insensitivity. Brazil has 210 million inhabitants. Arsenault’s parochial preoccupation with Canadian economic profit leads him to disregard the impact the new regime will have on this diverse mass of humanity, not least women, the poor, and the 100 million who have some African ancestry (and make Brazil also the world’s second-largest African country). All these are merely collateral damage, as are, perhaps more worryingly still, the country’s vast and priceless ecological riches, upon which global climate and biodiversity depend. Arsenault signs off breezily that “losses for the Amazon rainforest under Bolsonaro could spell big gains for Canadian investors.”

Third, the article and the CBC’s Twitter feed indicate breath-taking cynicism (even if Arsenault is now disclaiming it). They make no attempt to defend Bolsonaro from his critics. They take for granted that he is everything they say: “homophobic, racist, and misogynist”; a threat to indigenous people and the environment; a leader who will increase repression as he seeks to “hew closer to Latin America’s past military leaders.” When we trade with other countries whose political vices we claim to denounce, we usually resort to the argument (justified or not) that these are societies that are misunderstood; that they are moving in the right direction; that international engagement encourages moderates and liberalizers, while embargoes embolden hardliners. With Bolsonaro, these claims don’t work, as Brazil is clearly becoming less moderate and less liberal. Scandalously, the CBC doesn’t care.

Fourth, the CBC is here not merely reporting events. This is not even “analysis.” It is actively making the news. Not only because this article has entered public discussion, becoming an object of understandable incredulity. An article like this also normalizes a state of exception. The long-standing consensus in Latin American countries such as Brazil (or Argentina, Chile, Uruguay) that emerged from authoritarian rule in the 1980s and 1990s has been that there is no turning back: left or right, no mainstream politician would countenance breaking that democratic pact. But we now see a president willing to praise dictatorship. That would have been unthinkable just two years ago; no self-respecting news outlet should pretend that it is no big deal. No journalist should encourage us to tolerate cynicism. Doing so makes the CBC complicit in the erosion of democracy.

But is there a silver lining in the mini-catastrophe that is the CBC’s bungling of this story? The mythical Scottish newspaper headline told us more about Scotland than about the Titanic. Similarly, however unhelpful Arsenault’s article is about Brazil, it does give Brazilians (and the world) insight into Canada. We like to think we hold ourselves and our media to higher standards. This can lead others to call us smug. But we are smug no more. Canadian elites expose their brutal cynicism by dispensing with ideology, jettisoning the pretence that our international relations and trade policies stem from any desire to improve the world. This is another nail in the coffin of Canadian exceptionalism. From Toronto to São Paulo, Recife to Winnipeg, we are all in the same boat now, and that’s as good a basis for solidarity as any.

La mariposa mundial

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Presented at the Research Seminar in French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies
University of British Columbia
September 26, 2018

“Time-Travelling, Globe-Trotting: La mariposa mundial 23/24 (2016-2017)”

The latest issue of the Bolivian literary journal La mariposa mundial is dedicated to the theme “journal of journals.” Or rather, this issue is designed, at least in part, to be a journal of journals. As a double issue (bearing the numbers 23/24) it is already multiple, but that multiplicity is exponentially increased within its covers: it also, for instance, comes with a detachable supplement that is a facsimile edition of the six-page second number of the avant-garde journal Dum Dum, first published in Oruro in September 1935. Beyond that, it comprises extracts and images from (and of) a whole series of other Bolivian literary journals and little magazines, as well as archival material relating to those journals plus critical surveys, interviews, and reflections on decades of the country’s journal and magazine production.

La mariposa mundial reprints dozens of items (as well as facsimile pages, cover images, photographs, and related ephemera) from publications that originated in a swathe of Bolivian cities and from a period covering fifty or more years, starting in the 1910s: a poem from the first issue of La Tea (Puno, 1917); a profile from Argos (Oruro, 1923); the tables of contents (and reproductions of the covers) of the first three numbers of Inti (La Paz, 1925-26); the splendid cover of the second issue of Tempestad (Puno, 1930); a set of reflections on poetry from Sísifo (produced by Bolivians in Cordoba, 1959); an open letter published in the third number of Nova (La Paz, 1962); a copy (and transcription) of the manuscript original of an interview that would appear in Dador (La Paz, 1979); and much more. This is a treasure trove of fragments and extracts from half a century or more of literary creation and exploration that turns both inwards, in its attempts to outline and define a specifically Bolivian literary tradition, and outwards in its insatiable curiosity and desire for cosmopolitanism. The authors featured are, on the whole, experimental and avant-garde writers little-known today, even in Bolivia: Hilda Mundy, Gamaliel Churata, Jesús Urzagasti, and others. Here, La mariposa mundial (“the globe-trotting butterfly”) earns its name as it flits across space and time and shows how other journals were already likewise ranging far and wide, drawn to whatever is colorful, odd, challenging, and thought-provoking.

Justifying such sustained interest in what are often fleeting, transitory blooms (the Dum Dum supplement comes with a note observing that other numbers of that journal are missing, hopefully awaiting rediscovery in some forgotten archive), Omar Rocha argues in the essay that opens the issue that “literary journals [. . .] reflect the spirit of the age” (7). He continues: “Newspapers and journals register not only everyday events, but also forms of thought at a particular moment; they are shot through with the expectations and values, beliefs and priorities that are shared by people who belong or belonged to a specific place and time” (9). Perhaps all the more so because of their ephemerality and precariousness, a journal might (like a butterfly) be an especially sensitive register of regional, national, or even international moods, fears, anxieties, hopes, and dreams. Particularly compared to canonical works or officially-sanctioned monuments (in Rocha’s words, “the celebration of heroes and construction of statues that are polished from time to time” [17]), a literary journal from the periphery might also be all the more democratic and inclusive, offering other ways of seeing, decentered and aslant.

Yet there is a paradox here. We are told that the value of reprinting (and reading) these fragments is that they offer snapshots of forgotten presents, that they allow us to immerse ourselves, however briefly, in forms of thought and structures of feeling different from our own. But what then of (this issue of) La mariposa mundial itself? Given its devotion to the archive, what if anything does it tell us about the present, about the spirit of our own age? Is a “journal of journals,” especially one that displays such research and erudition, an exception to the general rule that a journal should be prized for its immediacy, for its fleet-footed (light-winged) capacity to record and reveal the passing perspective of a cultural moment?

For in many ways La mariposa mundial is less of its time than untimely, almost anachronistic. Not least in its format and presentation: Rocha gestures towards the contemporary emergence of “virtual journals and ‘lampoons’” (17), but he is writing in a journal that is almost defiantly un-virtual. This is a handsome printed edition, complete with its detachable supplement but also with folded, relatively heavy-duty covers and, most impressively of all, a fine fold-out color map (of “Ultima Sude,” a mythological reimagining of what we might call “Greater Bolivia”). The design and illustration are throughout both top-notch and notably old-fashioned in their attention to detail and desire to fill the page: from decorative borders, embellishments, and arabesques to flourishes and a wide variety of fonts and typographical styles. Every page manifests meticulous attention to the text’s framing and embodiment in this particular, printed medium, right down to the swirl underneath each page number. Not that the journal’s obsession with the materiality and even tactility of the communicative medium is confined to print technology: it also lovingly reproduces typescript poetry (complete with liquid paper corrections), a facsimile letter whose rips, folds, and creases are if anything highlighted in the reproduction, and handwritten notebook pages and notes. La mariposa mundial has a website, but it is no surprise to find that its content is currently unavailable, pending a site redesign.

Is this concern with the archive and the object a reflection of our age, or does it instead go against the grain? In some ways this is a false dichotomy: everything (whether journal or statue, crafted for the few or churned out for the many) bears the mark of the historical moment at which it is produced. And this is true even, perhaps especially, of those objects (texts or images, ideas or impulses) that purport to go “against the grain.” They need, after all, the grain to go against. In other words: the very fact that the editors and contributors of La mariposa mundial seek to ransack the archive is surely a sign that they believe it speaks somehow critically to us today.

For the point is not simply that the journals extracted and collected here offer us windows into Bolivia of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s–an alternative Bolivia or Bolivias, outside or excluded from official portrayals–but that they, too, are in some sense untimely, out of their time. The wager of La mariposa mundial is that just as (this collection demonstrates) such journals look outwards, in constant dialogue not only with the national capital, La Paz, and the weary task of constructing or consolidating a national tradition, but also with influences, ideas, and collaborators across Latin America and the globe, so too they also look forwards. Time-travelling as well as globe-trotting. As self-conscious members of the avant-garde, their contributors hoped to be addressing their contemporaries from the future. It may be that, liberated from the archive, they speak, not only from our past about their present, but to our present about what might still be to come.

Fricciones

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“Then, it began” (100). This is the last line of Gabriel Saldías’s book Fricciones (Frictions) and it hardly sounds like the way to end a collection of short stories, until you realize that what is probably beginning here is, in fact, the end of the world. The story that concludes with this line is titled “Tomorrow We Talk” (“Mañana hablamos”). But it is likely there will be no tomorrow. For some reason, never fully made clear, a catastrophe is coming, some kind of sudden if predictable ecological collapse. Not that this leads to great public lamentation or panic. Sadness prevails, but all emotions have to be reined in. The story’s narrator is a young boy, and at dinner the evening before his father simply insists that he and his brother eat their dinner and be grateful for the life they have lived. “Yes, father,” the narrator replies. “I’m grateful.” Then “nobody said anything more” (97). His mother hands out sleeping pills. They head off to bed.

Such is the tenor of many of these stories. Repeatedly, the world is coming to an end, if not literally then figuratively. And those who do survive tend to regret it. In “Latin American Champion” (“Champion latinoamericano”), for instance, it seems that Russian Roulette has become a spectator sport, as people wager on what is effectively a shorter and more brutal version of the Hunger Games in some apocalyptic near future. But incredibly a champion emerges, an emotionless and otherwise nondescript ex-boxer who somehow manages time and time again to avoid oblivion while other competitors blow their brains out in front of him. He would appear to be the very figure of good fortune in the face of overwhelming risk and imminent danger, but his luck runs out not thanks to the game but when he is devoured by the incredulous crowd who leave him “as dead as it is possible for a human being to die” (19).

In interview, Saldías has said that he sees himself and his writing as “pessimistically hopeful.” To be honest, however, the glimpses of hope that his stories provide are marginal at best. In “Tomorrow We Talk,” for instance, it is true that the narrator opens up his heart on the eve of destruction, declaring his love for a classmate who goes by the name of Susie Q. Will she be his girlfriend? If not, “I think I will die.” Susie doesn’t respond to this anomalous display of emotion, though nor does she reject the boy’s entreaty outright: she agrees merely to get back to him the following day; hence the story’s title. And the last we hear is the phone ringing in the middle of the night, the narrator dashing to pick it up and shout down the line: “Hello? Hello? Susie Q?” At which point the story ends, maybe with the slight hope that the line “Then, it began” might refer then not to the end of the world but to the start of their relationship. But it somehow seems unlikely.

Likewise, another story, “Residence on Earth” (“Residencia en la tierra,” the title a nod to Pablo Neruda) is for the most part a litany of misery and dispossession. It details how the inhabitants of a nameless country, presumably Chile, have been displaced by the market, forced out of their houses by gringos backed up by state power, who destroy their homes so as to build malls, hotels, bars, cinemas, and son. Here, the protagonist’s mother writes a letter announcing that she is joining the resistance, if indeed such a thing exists, somewhere in the South. And the protagonist himself is set on enacting his own form of vengeance, as the story ends with him setting up a sniper’s rifle to assassinate one of the figureheads of the regime. But this is surely a futile act, we are left thinking, made possible only by the protagonist sacrificing his very humanity, to become the “Hard Man,” ruthless and efficient as any capitalist entrepreneur.

These are hard stories, too, in more than one sense. Often cryptic, brief and allusive, chiseled down to bare essentials, they offer little in the way of consolation for a vision that is relentlessly downbeat and dystopian. Even irony and humor, where they appear (as in “Pretty as a Sun” [“Lindo como un sol”], the tale of a Chilean returning to his country), are not enough to save us. Despair and quiet rage are the prevailing emotions. I am reminded of Franz Kafka’s famous line that “There is an infinite amount of hope in the universe… but not for us.” Except that here there is not much hope for others, either. Perhaps then we can take these stories as a series of cautionary tales, a warning of what life would look like if we abandoned hope entirely. But even that may be an overly optimistic reading of the dark but powerful imagination evidenced in this harrowing but enthralling collection.

Testimonio and the Politics of Truth

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This semester I’m teaching what my university designates as a “research-intensive” seminar, and figured that this would be an opportunity, among other things, to thematize and question the practice of “research” itself. This I am aiming to do by means of an investigation into Latin American testimonio and the “politics of truth,” with current events in the USA and elsewhere as an ever-present backdrop to our discussions.

You can check out the course website, but here’s the blurb, and below it are links to posts I’m writing in connection with the course…

“The question of ‘truth’ and its importance (or its unimportance) is at issue now more than ever. Oxford Dictionaries have declared that their ‘word of 2016’ was ‘post-truth.’ The idea of ‘post-truth’ is that people are less concerned with whether something is true or not, than with how it makes them feel. It is argued that some of the most decisive political events of the past year–not least the rise of President Elect Donald Trump in the USA–can be explained by this phenomenon.

“If research (fact-checking, investigation) no longer seems to count, or to make much difference to how people think or act, its usefulness or legitimacy is now in question.

“So we will not simply be practicing research in this seminar. We will also be thinking about what it means to do research, what is the point of doing research, and how our ideas about research might have changed over time.

“As a way to think about these issues, we will be reading a series of texts from Latin America that deal with testimony, witnessing, and historical investigation. They include Rodolfo Walsh’s Operación masacre, Miguel Barnet’s Biografía de un cimarrón, Elizabeth Burgos and Rigoberta Menchú’s Me llamo Rigoberto Menchú, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s El hablador. These often deal with issues of great importance for ordinary people: state violence, human rights, cultural identity. But their truthfulness has also been questioned, or they have even questioned what we think to be true. We will look therefore at the controversies and debates that these texts have provoked. And we will research them, but we will also ask ourselves about what we are doing (and why) as we do such research.”

Biografía de un cimarrón

biografia_de_un_cimarron

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

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

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

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

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