The Long Night of White Chickens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

coup

Reading Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer’s now classic account of the 1954 Guatemalan coup, Bitter Fruit, comparisons with the United States’ more recent adventures in regime change and nation-building are inevitable.

anti-Arbenz rebelsAs in Iraq, toppling the Guatemalan government proved easier than many expected. Indeed, in 1954, and despite some nervous moments, US provision of air power to its small proxy army meant that the overthrow of reforming (and democratically elected) president Jacobo Arbenz was almost too easy. On being debriefed by the CIA operatives who orchestrated the coup, and hearing that the rebel force had suffered only one fatality in the whole process, “Eisenhower shook his head, perhaps thinking of the mass slaughter he had seen in World War II, and muttered ‘Incredible!'” (218).

What’s striking, in fact, is how modern were the methods used to bring down Arbenz. Beyond buzzing the capital and strafing a few provincial towns, the CIA relied for the most part on PR and psychological warfare. In short, their aim was to sow fear–or better, terror–within the country, and to ensure complacency outside. Precisely in its paucity of casualties (and loyalist forces themselves only lost “a total of fifteen soldiers, with another twenty-five wounded” [194]), the coup was very much a media event, complete with the US ambassador feeding the foreign press (dis)information over drinks at Guatemala City’s American Club (186).

Together with the covert operation to topple Iran’s Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, the coup against Arbenz marked a departure for the CIA, which under Truman had since its foundation in 1947 mainly confined itself to passive intelligence gathering: but with John Foster Dulles as head of the State Department, the Agency had “embarked on an activist course” (100). One might speculate that had the outcomes of these two operations been different, the US might have thought twice in subsequent years about such aggressive intervention in overseas jurisdictions. As it was, however, “the CIA as an institution got a renewed lease of life” thanks to its apparently almost effortless success (228).

But that success was short lived. Schlesinger and Kinzer quote “the ‘official’ historian of the coup, Ronald Schneider,” as saying that “in the light of subsequent events it might reasonably be considered little short of disaster” (227). They also cite a former advisor in the US Embassy to Guatemala: “Having a revolution is a little like releasing a wheel at the top of a hill. You don’t know where it’s going to bounce or where it’s going to go” (227).

For, in the first place, the US had installed a military class that was almost comically divided and fractious. Though they, in conjunction with the influential United Fruit Company, had set up Colonel Castillo Armas to be the country’s putative “liberator,” soon a rather squalid power struggle erupted. Castillo Armas, chosen in part “because he was a stupid man” was in fact the Americans’ third choice, and he soon had to face the contending claims of various other army leaders, not least General Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes, who eventually came to power upon Castillo Armas’s assassination in 1957.

Second, and in part because of the precarious legitimacy of the regimes subsequent to the coup, the history of Guatemala since 1954 has been remarkably violent and bloody. The country holds the dubious distinction of being the first place to see the practice of “disappearing” political opponents, a fact that Greg Grandin underscores in The Last Colonial Massacre (which I review here) and also in an interview on the University of Chicago Press website:

In March of 1966 [. . .] over thirty leftists were captured, interrogated, tortured, and executed between March 3 and March 5. Their bodies were placed in sacks and dropped into the Pacific from US-supplied helicopters. Although some of their remains washed back to shore, and despite pleas from Guatemala’s archbishop and over five hundred petitions of habeas corpus filed by relatives, the government and the American embassy remained silent about the fate of the executed.

More generally, though the 1980s genocide in the Guatemalan highlands is relatively well known, as Bitter Fruit (as also The Last Colonial Massacre) makes evident, this was merely the culmination of years of slaughter: more than 30,000 people “abducted, tortured, and assassinated” in the 1960s and 1970s (247); already by 1976 René de León Shlotter can speak of “a spectacular form of violence” over the previous two decades, notable for its “intensity–the high number of victims and the cruelty of the methods used” (qtd. 250).

Third, however, Grandin also argues that the coup was

perhaps the single most important event in twentieth-century US-Latin American relations [. . . leading] to a radicalization of hemispheric politics. [. . .]

The overthrow of Arbenz convinced many Latin American reformers, democrats, and nationalists that the United States was less a model to be emulated than a danger to be feared. Che Guevara, for example, was in Guatemala working as a doctor and witnessed firsthand the effects of US intervention. He fled to Mexico, where he would meet Fidel Castro and go on to lead the Cuban Revolution. He taunted the United States repeatedly in his speeches by saying that “Cuba will not be Guatemala.” For its part, the United States promised to turn Guatemala into a “showcase for democracy” but instead created a laboratory of repression. Practices institutionalized there—such as death squad killings conducted by professionalized intelligence agencies—spread throughout Latin America in the coming decades.

In some ways, the whole cycle of violence that will later lead to such concern for human rights in the region starts here, in 1954. In other ways, it’s in Guatemala more than anywhere else that we see the clearest continuity with the kinds of practices documented by Bartolomé de las Casas as early as the 1530s.

But again, if only the US had taken to heart at the time the lesson that regime change is easy; yet political legitimacy and stability cannot be assured thereafter.

traje

indigenous womanAlicia Velásquez Nimatuj offers a stirring defence of Guatemalan indigenous dress or traje. She opens with an anecdote of how she was refused admittance to a Guatemala City restaurant solely (she tells us) because she was wearing K’iche dress. She argues that wearing traje “is not just a matter of standing up for our cultural rights. Since 1997, in post-war Guatemala, it has become a political challenge: that of breaking the various ideological, legal, colonial, and contemporary racist structures that exist in all spheres of the Guatemalan State” (“Ways of Exclusion” 158).

But if the survival of traje is an instance of both “historical resistance” and “everyday resistance,” indeed if in the history of Mayan resistance to colonialism “women’s regional dress has played a leading role” (159), then what to say of the fact that increasingly, and especially in the cities, it is now replaced by “fashionable jeans and jacket” (161)? For Velásquez Nimatuj, the shift from regional to conventional Western dress shows “how racism is internalized for some Maya women [. . . they] have come to accept what the dominant ideology has repeated over and over again, that our regional dress stands for ‘backwardness,’ ‘underdevelopment,’ ‘poor hygiene,’ ‘ignorance,’ and ‘living in the past'” (160).

On the other hand, the role of “Maya intermediaries” in “the folkloric exploitation and abuse of Maya women and their traditional dress” is equally “reprehensible” (162). Velásquez Nimatuj notes that “sadly” even “a few Maya” are involved in organizing Cobán’s annual folk festival that features a beauty pageant for indigenous girls in ceremonial costume (162).

In short, both wearing traje and not wearing it properly, treating it as semi-archaic folklore rather than as living resistance, are equally damned as something very close to ethnic betrayal.

Indigenous dress threatens both betrayal and counter-betrayal: in so far as it constitutes the performance of ethnic authenticity and resistance, it “betrays” the fact that its wearer will never be fully ladinized, that she is always treated as stubbornly subaltern to be banished to the margins of Guatemalan society; but by contrast, when the dress is put centre-state as the fetishized image of national identity, for instance in airport shops or tourist brochures and boutiques, another betrayal is afoot in this improper performance of authenticity.

In other words, though Velásquez Nimatuj wants to tell us that dress somehow expresses the intimate essence of ethnic identity, “the visible proof and cultural marker that locates us in the category of ‘Indians'” (160-161), not only does she therefore collude with the restaurant doorman who likewise interprets clothing as ethnicity, but she is also forced rather futilely to police the evident fissures between the two. She insists that studies focussing only on the material aspects of indigenous weaving are insufficient, but this is surely because now traje has become for her a political style on which she, like any other self-appointed arbiter of fashion, has set herself up to judge.

By contrast, then, I find Carol Hendrickson’s more nuanced analysis to be also more persuasive. For Hendrickson, wearing regional dress is best understood as strategy rather than essence, allowing “Guatemalans acting within a given social moment [to] contemplate and adjust their own appearance (if only momentarily and on an extremely small scale) and hence the social role assigned to them” (“Images of the Indian in Guatemala” 303). As a strategy, then, the consequences of traje are never fully predictable. It is an always uncertain risk, which may bring rewards as well as stigma, benefits as well as losses. “This is particularly true when the situation is anything more than routine and when it is not obvious which image of the Indian will come into play for any particular circumstance” (304).

Velásquez Nimatuj prescribes pre-destined resistance, whose limits she claims to legislate as native anthropologist/informant. But Hendrickson presents dress as a terrain of corporeal experimentation and investment, which may or may not lead to politically significant incorporeal transformations, in a contested field in which identity traits are at least partially dislocated and so still up for grabs.

Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez PenaGuillermo Gómez Peña and Coco Fusco