Unjustified: Brazil, Politics, and Trade

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

“Unjustified: Brazil, Politics, and Trade”


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”


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


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.



“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.

Truth or Justice?


My friend Pablo Policzer, hearing of my interest in questioning the priority of truth in politics (and, indeed, elsewhere) sends me a link to a talk by Jonathan Haidt: “Why Universities Must Choose One Telos: Truth or Social Justice”. And he asks me “Have you gone conservative?”

Now, Haidt claims that there are two competing “teloi” in the modern university: truth and social justice. He makes Mill the flagbearer of the cause of truth, and Marx the inspiration for calls for justice. He argues that right now the movement towards social justice is increasing, and that at some point universities will have to make a decision: “I believe that the conflict between truth and social justice is likely to become unmanageable. Universities will have to choose, and be explicit about their choice, so that potential students and faculty recruits can make an informed choice.”

In fact, of course, for Haidt this is no choice at all: he sees social justice as contaminating the historic mission of higher education, not least because (in his view) it leads to increasing homogenization and decreasing diversity. Social justice, he tell us, is “incompatible with political diversity, since many conservative ideas and speakers are labeled as threatening and banned from campus and the curriculum.”

Now, as it happens myself I don’t think that the raison d’être of the university is either truth or justice, though both are better than the neoliberal logic that has entrenched itself in much of higher education. (And let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that Haidt seems compelled to add the qualifier “social” to justice as though that already delegitimated it; or that his complaints reek to high heaven of bad faith.) But let us say Haidt were right: if we had to choose between truth and justice, is there any real reason not to choose the latter?


Testimonio and the Politics of Truth


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.”

La noche de Tlatelolco


One of the repeated chants of Mexico’s student movement in the 1960s, among the many reproduced in Elena Poniatowska’s La noche de Tlatelolco, is a demand for dialogue: “DIA-LOGUE-DIA-LOGUE-DIA-LOGUE-DIA-LOGUE-DIA-LOGUE.” As one of her informants puts it, this is because “the government’s been talking to itself for fifty years now” (30; 38); or as another puts it, “The PRI,” the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, “doesn’t go in for dialogues, just monologues” (86; 90). Hence no doubt the form of Poniatowska’s own book, composed as it is of a multitude of snippets (of interviews, pronouncements, chants, newspaper articles, and so on) from all sides. Dialogue proved impossible in the real world, on the streets or in council chambers, as it was cut short by the violent repression of the student movement, the imprisonment of its leaders, and particularly by the massacre at Tlatelolco, in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, that gives this book its title. But it is as though that impossible dialogue were now (almost) realized on the page as slogans face headlines, and witnesses from a variety of backgrounds speak of their experiences, one after another. Moreover, as Poniatowska makes little overt effort to impose a unified narrative or reconcile disparities (though there is no doubt that there is artfulness and intention in the ordering and placement of the various fragments), it is almost as if we catch that dialogue in midstream, any conclusion endlessly postponed.

But I say that this fantasy of dialogue is only almost realized on the page, not merely because it is in the nature of testimonio (as we have seen for instance with Biografía de un cimarrón) that the written word betrays, by fixing and so deadening, oral expression. It is also that the extreme fragmentation here threatens to undermine any attempt to make sense at all, refusing not only the forced coherence of the authoritarian state but also any unity to which the student movement itself might aspire. Even the chant itself, as it is printed here, breaks down the demand for dialogue into its constituent syllables and no longer respects either the unity of the word or its separation from any other: “DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO.” In the frenetic repetition of the march, meaning slips away to be replaced by sheer sound, by elements that could be recombined in more than one way, to more than one end or effect. The onus then is on the reader to pick up and combine the pieces, but even so it is not clear that any single narrative could ever gather together all the fragments and make them cohere. But then surely this is part of the point: if ever there had once been a chance for dialogue, now not even literature (or testimonio) can bring that moment back.

Poniatowska does not claim to establish the truth of what happened at Tlatelolco. Even as she effectively undermines the official version of events, she makes little attempt to substitute it with a new, more authoritative, version. She wrests the monopoly of the truth from the state, without presuming to claim ownership of it herself.

For hers is less a fact-finding mission than a therapeutic howl that puts language to the ultimate test. As she says in one of her very few editorial interventions, halfway through the book, even to consider delving for the truth would be somehow offensive to the victims: “Grief is a very personal thing. Putting it into words is almost unbearable; hence asking questions, digging for facts, borders on an invasion of people’s privacy” (199; 164). Instead, what she aims to provide is a space for the expression of that inexpressive grief that makes the animal within us (bare, unqualified life) come to the fore, as with the mother that Poniatowska describes as “so stunned that for days and days she uttered scarcely a word, and then suddenly, like a wounded animal–an animal whose belly is being ripped apart–she let out a hoarse, heart-rending cry, from the very center of her life.” This is “the sort of wild keening that is the end of everything, the wail of ultimate pain from the wound that will never heal” (199; 164). As such, even to call La noche de Tlatelolco an exercise in therapy is to say too much, as it would imply that healing can someday come–a claim as offensive and intolerable as the high-handed notion that there is some relationship between truth and reconciliation, or even that either were ever desirable. No. What matters is less what these fragments say than what they can never say, or what they say only by revealing the insufficiency and arrogance of any claims to truth or certainty. These pages, if they express anything, are the place for “the mute cry that stuck in thousands of throats, the blind grief in thousands of horror-stricken eyes on October 2, 1968, the night of Tlatelolco” (199; 164).

See also: Testimonio and the Politics of Truth.