Hijo de hombre II

Augusto Roa Bastos, Hijo de hombre

The second half of Roa Bastos’s Hijo de hombre takes us to the War of the Chaco (1932-35), which Bolivia and Paraguay fought out in the inhospitable and almost uninhabited territory of the Gran Chaco. Ostensibly, this was a conflict over oil, which had been discovered in small quantities near the border. But in the war’s aftermath no significant reserves were found until in 2012 the Paraguayan government proudly announced the discovery of a huge oilfield, as belated consolation for the loss of 30,000 men some eighty years previously. At the time, however, the struggle was presented as a fight for national survival. The country had already been devastated by the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-70), in which the combined armies of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, plus starvation and disease, had inflicted extraordinary casualties (perhaps 60% of the entire population, and a particularly high percentage of adult males) and led to Paraguay losing almost half its territory. Given this precedent, the war with Bolivia was perceived as an existential threat rather than a simple squabble over remote border outposts and forts. Accordingly, the country scrambled into fullscale national mobilization and total war.

Hence Roa Bastos shows the disparate characters to whom we have been introduced in the novel’s first half as they are swept up by the war machine, whatever their previous histories and relations to the Paraguayan state. Rebels and renegades alike, plucked from prisons where necessary, are transported to the front line halfway between Asunción and the Bolivian border. Here they join the siege of Boquerón, trying to wrest back an isolated outpost from the opposing side. Conditions are terrible, and the Paraguayans end up struggling against the land and the environment as much as they also have to defend themselves from Bolivian attempts to break the siege. Miguel Vega, who lends this fragmented novel much of its meager sense of continuity, finds himself the head of a detachment of troops cut off from the rest of the Paraguayan forces in a dusty canyon. Above all, what they need is water. In a series of diary entries Vega tells the tale of devastation and increasing delirium as around him his men die of hunger and thirst. Everything becomes “unreal,” but nonetheless he continues to write: “I hold on for the end, clinging to this final glimmer of reason, this scrap of pencil. Every time it feels heavier, as if I were writing with the carbonized skeleton of a tree” (271). We are at the absolute limit of bodily endurance and graphic representation alike, as Vega wrestles with an implement that has become less a means of expression than the physical incarnation of blasted nature.

In parallel to Vega’s account, we are given the story of the small convoy that sets out to rescue him. Led by his former rebel comrade-in-arms, Cristóbal Jara, from the start we know that this is effectively a suicide mission. Here, there is little that is metaphorical about Jara’s absorption into the war machine: driving a water tanker, he is described as “form[ing] part of the truck, a living, feeling element that radiated force and will to the metallic tendons and nerves of the battered vehicle” (294). Later, he has one injured and gangrenous arm tied with wire to the steering wheel, the other to the gearstick. Throughout, half-man, half-machine, he embraces his fate as though it were freedom itself:

Now there was no other option than to go on, go on forever, go on at any cost. [. . .] What other destiny could a man like Cristóbal Jara have, other than to propel his obsession like a slave through a narrow trail in the forest or across the infinite plains, overflowing with the savage stench of liberty. To be opening the way through the savage thicket of the facts on the ground, shedding his flesh in them, but transforming them too with the aspect of that will whose power grew precisely the more he became one with them. (322)

This is an extraordinary passage: a paean to immanence, to freedom through what is apparently self-sacrifice, to the transfiguration of the real through absolute acceptance.

In his commentary on Roa Bastos’s novel, Horacio Legras notes that “War is the historical event par excellence” (Literature and Subjection 167). Which in many ways it no doubt is, not least in the case of Paraguay, a country whose history can be narrated precisely in terms of a catalogue of armed conflicts both external and internal. But in the account given by Hijo de hombre, war becomes more even than the scenario for existential survival or demise; it becomes an ontological test, an expression of constituent power and conatus in their most basic expressions. No wonder that after the conflict some veterans should seem lost without it: the final chapter gives us the story of Crisanto Villalba, whose lament is that “our war, which was so lovely, is at an end” (354). It’s hard to know how to take such investment in bloody conflict that otherwise seems so senseless and self-defeating, waged over a barren wasteland in the name of the Fatherland. There are surely echoes (or presentiments) of a quasi-fascist triumph of the will. But Roa Bastos himself seems to present this ontological struggle in more positive terms:

They feel alive in the facts. They feel united in the passion of an instant that projects them out of themselves, binding them to some cause whether it be true or false, but at least it’s something… There is no other life as far as they are concerned. [. . .] Even the sense of loss felt by Cristanto Villalba is an all-consuming passion like life. [. . .] Their God is the force of their indestructible brotherhood. They crush it, they break it, they tear it into pieces, but it is forever rebuilt from the fragments, each time more alive and more powerful. (362)

Ultimately Miguel Vega, who mostly and indeed perhaps entirely narrates the novel, and who surely stands in for Roa Bastos (however much he would rather see himself as the oral storyteller, Macario Francia), is uncertain whether to marvel at or be horrified by the brute force and stubborn perseverance–but equally stubborn self-immolation–of the Paraguayan “sons of men.” As he puts it at the end of his manuscript:

There has to be some way out from this monstrous paradox of man crucified by man. Because otherwise we’d be forced to think that the human race is forever cursed, that this is Hell itself and that we can hope for no salvation.

There has to be some way out, because otherwise… (369)

In that uncertain repetition and final ellipsis is all the ambivalence of this troubled and troubling text.

Will without Thinking

[Cross-posted to Infinite Test.]

Visit Quebec

If the Enfield Tennis Academy promises “self-forgetting through pain”, it’s not as though that’s the only means to self-dissolution. Thinking about Jim Incandenza’s films, Joelle van Dyne suggests that they begin to acquire an “almost moralistic” thesis: “present[ing] the self-forgetting of alcohol as inferior to that of religion/art” (742). After all, presumably Jim knew what he was about: he had been an alcoholic as well as an (increasingly) obsessional maker of films. But pain, alcohol, art, and religion don’t exhaust the ways in which the various characters in Infinite Jest seek what van Dyne terms the “Grail” of self-forgetting, the “mediated transcendence of self” (742). Drugs, politics, and death (by suicide), not to mention mass entertainment, are other routes contemplated or actually taken to achieve this apparently common and universal goal: getting out of oneself, away from oneself. Even recovery programs such as Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous are, as their critics observe, simply another form of self-renunciation: “an exchange of slavish dependence on the bottle/pipe for slavish dependence on meetings and banal shibboleths and robotic piety” (706). So then isn’t the moral of the story (and surely David Foster Wallace is as much of a moralist as Jim Incandenza) simply that some modes of self-forgetting are better than others?

The paradox of it all is that being “not yourself” is the problem as much as it is the solution. In a long conversation about melancholy and its symptoms, Jim’s widow Avril tells her son Mario that there is “a certain very strange type of sadness that appears as a kind of disassociation from itself.” Explaining further, she adds: “You know the idiom ‘not yourself’–‘He’s not himself today,’ for example [. . .]. There are, apparently, persons who are deeply afraid of their own emotions, particularly the painful ones. [. . .] As if something truly and thoroughly felt would have no end or bottom. Would become infinite and engulf them” (765). Note here that infinity itself is seen as a curse. The only thing is that there’s no “apparently” about this observation: what Mario’s mother is describing is almost precisely the condition that seems to afflict just about everyone in the book, not excluding Avril herself, whose permanent smile and good humour appear no better than denial and have a perverse effect on those around her. When, for instance, she accepts a “pathetic lie” from her eldest son, Orin, about the death of her beloved pet dog (whose demise had been in fact as gruesome as one could imagine), it leaves Orin’s friend “wiping [his] forehead and wishing the immaculately polished and sterilized hardwood floor would swallow up the whole scene in toto” (1050). Indeed, Orin’s friend continues, Avril’s reaction was in effect abusive because it was “almost too unconditionally loving and compassionate and selfless to possibly be true” (1051; emphasis added). Likewise, van Dyne, on meeting Mrs Incandenza for the first time, finds herself “half-crazed. She could detect nothing fake about the lady’s grace and cheer toward her, the goodwill. And at the same time felt sure in her guts’ pit that the woman could have sat there and cut out Joelle’s pancreas and thymus [. . .] without batting an eye” (747). Just about everyone, in short, in this book flees emotion, and seeks to escape (transcend, forget) themselves with all the energy they can muster.

If, then, we have a choice, then the only (ethical?) question that remains seems to be that of which of these modes of self-forgetting is superior. The problem here is that although choice itself is presented as endlessly burdensome, perhaps because (along with emotion) it is assumed to be the mark of individuality and selfhood. Here perhaps the true hero of the story is turning out to be the curious figure of Rémy Marathe, Quebecois wheelchair assassin and double (quadruple?) agent. Admittedly, Marathe makes a rather dubious hero, let alone ethical exemplar: it is revealed, after all, that it is he who personally administered the most horrific violence of what is already a pretty horrifically violent book: as he “pushed the sharpened handle of the manche à balai broomstick through the Antitoi’s insides during the technical interview of the Antitoit”; and it surely is no great saving grace that he “later had vomited out into the alley under secrecy” (753). Yet Marathe manifests the power and will to choose, and in (potentially) betraying his country is apparently opting to live in a “confusion of choices” (752). This is so even if to begin with these choices are forced upon him from outside, when he sees a woman stuck on the freeway and about to be run over, who thus enables him to decide (perhaps despite himself) to save her. As he puts it in his broken, French-inflected, English: “In one instant and without thought I was allowed to choose something as more important than my thinking of my life. Her, she allowed this will without thinking” (778).

“Will without thinking”: is this then what we are all striving for or should be striving for? This is not complete self-erasure, for (again, perhaps despite himself) Foster Wallace seems to rail, here at least, against such “self-destructing logic” (725). We need, as the Quebecois multilingually put it, to be learn to “say ‘Non’ to fatal pleasures” (722). At the same time, it is not quite a return to the traditional, liberal notion of the rational subject. This isn’t, I think, a particularly humanist book. It’s often suggested that people are really machines of some sort: a crazy guy in the halfway house says that he and Marathe are the only ones there who aren’t (“I could tell you were real. [. . .] The metal ones–have faces” [734]), but this may well not be what makes him crazy. Pemulis and Hal, too, see themselves in machinic terms: “What happens if you try to go without something the machine needs? Food, moisture, sleep, 02?” (1065). What’s more, loss of the self is not the worst of all problems: there are also people who are too much themselves, who (as Mario puts it to his mother) become “even more themselves than normal” (768). The ideal, at least if Marathe is to be trusted–and of course, he isn’t–seems to be a kind of impersonal subjectivity, neither the impossible bastion of rational individualism, not surrender even to the allegedly most superior of “transcendent” forces. A truly corporeal subjectivity, that doesn’t pass through thought or rationality, but expresses rather a conatus of objects and things. Not that even this leads to any great celebration. As Kate Gombert, Marathe’s interlocutor, puts it: “I don’t think I’m like thinking this is a feel-better story at all” (779).