Rethinking Community from Peru

[Crossposted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective.]


What kind of political philosophy should one expect of a novelist? Irina Feldman’s fascinating Rethinking Community from Peru: The Political Philosophy of José María Arguedas prompts this question, as it proposes to present us with the political philosophy of José María Arguedas, the Peruvian author of Los ríos profundos, Todas las sangres, and El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (among much else). Her starting point is the (in)famous 1965 Mesa Redonda sobre Todas las Sangres, in which (as she explains) Arguedas’s vision of Peruvian society was “severely questioned by a group of progressive scholars” (p. 3). His interlocutors felt that Arguedas had spurned class analysis in favor of an atavistic (if not reactionary) attachment to indigenous cultural forms such as the ayllu. For Feldman, what they missed was that Arguedas saw in such forms “an alternative project of community” that might carry over to a socialist society. But the more fundamental problem with this discussion was that the social scientists reading the novel had overlooked the fact that ultimately it was literary artifact, not sociological analysis. And to some extent Feldman replicates that mistake in seeking to squeeze a full-flown “political philosophy” from Arguedas’s fiction.

The bulk of this book is a reading of Todas las sangres highlighting the failures of the Peruvian state to achieve anything like hegemony in the highlands. What we see instead, we are told, is something more akin to what Ranajit Guha terms “dominance without hegemony” (p. 85). But in fact, in the Andes the state is not even dominant. As Feldman shows, Arguedas’s novel documents at least three other competing powers: the traditional hacendado system of large landowners with quasi-divine authority over “their” Indians; the indigenous ayllu, with its rotating leadership of varayok’s; and the forces of multinational capital, represented here by the Wisther-Bozart mining consortium. And though the haciendas are in decline–also, if more arguably so, the ayllu–the pressures of capital investment and resource extraction are such that the state can hardly carve out space to institute a liberal civil society, even if it wanted to do so.

Arguedas has a surprisingly positive view of the landowning class, perhaps because–like the varayok’s–they manifest the “solid bodily presence of the figure of authority” in contrast to the absent, “ghostly state” (p. 33). Hence the novel presents us with Don Bruno, a landowner who mobilizes his authority on the Indians’ behalf. But he can do so only by means of a self-sacrifice that destroys any chance of an effective alliance with the indigenous, and that further undercuts the state’s claims to sovereignty, rendering ordinary people all the more defenseless in the face of the mining corporations.

The saving grace of Andean culture, Feldman tells us, is its refusal to grant a “negative connotation” to physical labor, enabling “the indigenous serfs [to] escape the process of alienation” thanks to “the ritual appropriation of work in the mine [. . .] which signals a possibility of symbolic appropriation of the means of production” (p. 116). It is not clear, however, how much the real owners of the means of production are concerned about such symbolic reappropriation, so long as the workers continue to do their jobs without grumbling. In other words: is this not the most minimal, even self-defeating, revolution imaginable? Yet this is a phenomenon that Arguedas repeatedly depicts in his novels, from the communal road-building in Yawar Fiesta to the procession demanding a Catholic mass in Los ríos profundos: even in hegemony’s absence, the indigenous continue to struggle for their own servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation.

This may indeed be (as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari suggest) the fundamental problem of political philosophy, but it is not clear that Arguedas grasps it as such. Should he? I am unconvinced that Arguedas ever satisfactorily rethinks the concept of community. His work is more symptom than solution, and if anything its weakness is that too often he does think like a social scientist, not least in his anguished concern for a Peruvian national project. The fact that Feldman’s examples of an Arguedan “political philosophy” in action all come from Bolivia, not Peru, shows the error of taking the nation-state as political horizon. More fundamentally, rather than trying to extract a political project from Arguedas’s fiction, it is more rewarding to see it as among the best mappings of Andean infrapolitics; that is, as an exploration of the conditions of possibility (and impossibility) of politics tout court.

Posthegemony in Peru

I was fortunate a few weeks ago to be able to present my book at a “Mesa Verde” at the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos in Lima.  Guillermo Rochabrún and Juan Carlos Ubilluz provided stimulating comments, and there was a spirited discussion session at the end.  Herewith, the video of the event.  Many thanks to Patricia Ames for moderating and making it possible.

Renaming the Desert

La teta asustada poster

“Renaming the Desert: Sound and Image in the Films of Claudia Llosa”

For a film-maker, whom one might suppose to be more concerned with the visual image, Claudia Llosa shows a perhaps surprising interest in language and, indeed, sound. In the first instance, this is manifest in the prominence of indigenous language in both her films, Madeinusa and La teta asustada. In each case, the movie opens, with very little else in the way of preliminaries, to the sound of a song sung in Quechua. In fact, in La teta asustada that is all there is: the screen itself is completely blank. It is as though, instead of the traditional cinematic establishing shot, a panorama that would establish a spatial milieu and setting within which the narrative is then to unfold, we have rather an establishing sound. In Llosa’s films, the action is situated acoustically or linguistically before it finds physical space or a visual field. And in that the specific sound in each case is Quechua folk song, the characters and plot are therefore located in a sonic space defined by the Andean highlands, even when, as in La teta asustada, their physical location is the outskirts of Lima, in the desert littoral. In this film, then, we soon find that there is an ongoing tension between sound and image, language and the things it is to describe or name. If the plot of La teta asustada is driven by fundamental physical and geographical displacement–it revolves around the task of returning the corpse of the principal character’s mother (who sang the opening song) back to her highland village–this is duplicated in its formal structure, by the slippage between what is heard or said and what is seen.

Read more… (pdf file)


I wonder whether it is the pressure of the Nobel prize acceptance speech itself, which marks the point at which the writer is thrust into a new form of public celebrity, or the burden that Latin American literature takes upon itself to be politically engaged where other literatures do not feel the same need, but it’s notable how little Mario Vargas Llosa has to say about literature in his recent Nobel lecture.

The speech is entitled “In Praise of Reading and Fiction,” an echo no doubt of Vargas Llosa’s own book, In Praise of the Stepmother, which is by chance one of his least obviously political books. But it might equally have gone by a title such as “In Denunciation of Authoritarianism,” for beyond some well-worn homilies about the power of fiction (“Literature is a false representation of life that nevertheless helps us to understand life better”), and a little bit of incidental autobiography, Vargas Llosa has more to say about politics than anything else.

In denouncing authoritarianism, the Nobel laureate takes the opportunity to launch pot-shots at Cuba (of course), but also Venezuela’s Chávez and Bolivia’s Morales, as well as indulging in a long digression whose main purpose is to denigrate Catalan nationalism.

Generally, it’s interesting how Vargas Llosa constructs and tries to balance his various audiences. He speaks in praise of Spain, the country of his current residence and citizenship, and presumably the comments on Catalonia are a function of his self-positioning as a specifically Spanish intellectual. But he also appeals to his Peruvian roots and tries to deflect the charge that he has in any way betrayed them by moving to Europe and taking up with the former conquistadors who did so much damage to Peru’s pre-Columbian cultures. And he further has to present himself as a fully cosmopolitan, global figure whose ties to any one particular place are necessarily weaker than his allegiance to the world republic of letters.

And yet, for all his purported praise of reading and fiction, ultimately his investment in the world republic of letters (that “false representation of life”) always has to cede to the greater calling offered by the res publica itself. Why, for instance, does he feel compelled to tell us that “Latin America has made progress”, that “We are afflicted with fewer dictatorships than before,” and that “if it stays on it, combats insidious corruption, and continues to integrate with the world, Latin America will finally stop being the continent of the future and become the continent of the present”?

He has, after all, much less to say about the state of Latin American literature; indeed, his literary references are all at least half a century old: to José María Arguedas and Juan Rulfo, to the Boom writers “Borges, Octavio Paz, Cortázar, García Márquez, Fuentes, Cabrera Infante, Rulfo, Onetti, Carpentier, Edwards, Donoso,” when not to figures such as “Balzac, Stendhal, Baudelaire, and Proust.” His literary narrative is soaked in nostalgia; but when it comes to politics he feels the need to renounce all lost loves (socialism, above all) in the name of a paean to democratic progress and a concomitant warning against the excesses of the contemporary “left turns.”

Literary dreams are, apparently, to be indulged; political dreams, however, are to be disparaged.

Finally, it may be a strange kind of false modesty (or justified by the fact that the prize itself presumably attests to his pre-eminence in the field), but Vargas Llosa make precious little reference to his own works of fiction. He says somewhat more about his love of the theater, and still more about his work as a journalist.

In short, it is as though the Nobel laureate himself shared some of the fear of literature that he projects upon those in power. He claims that “all regimes determined to control the behavior of citizens from cradle to grave fear [literature] so much they establish systems of censorship to repress it,” In fact, this is at best a half-truth: as many literary and cultural historians have observed, Latin American literature is a good a place as any to research the ways in which elites use the written word to their own advantage. From the privileged role of the church and letrados under colonialism, to the “foundational fictions” of the nineteenth century that continue to imbue the virtues of citizenship in contemporary school curricula, literature has historically been as much handmaiden of power as its opponent.

In sum, Vargas Llosa seems to want to confine sedition to fiction: literature, in his conception, invokes romantic images of the past, with sweet memories of big-nosed grandfathers and enthusiastic Uncle Luchos. When it comes to the present, however, he steps outside this literary role so as to curb the foolishness of those who have not followed his example in putting behind them their youthful dreams.


Congratulations to Claudia Llosa and, by extension, to Peru for the success of La teta asustada, which just won the Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear for best picture.

Claudia Llosa
A couple of notes…

First, the English title Milk of Sorrow is not even close to the Spanish original. I would have translated it as “The Nervous Tit.” I haven’t seen the film myself yet, but I would hope that the resonance with “nervous tic” might prove appropriate. Of course, some could think that the film was a psychological portrait of a common garden bird.

Second, this here blog has tried to provide a guide to Peruvian cinema. I’d like to think that this collection of reviews is the most comprehensive to be found online in English. It even features an essay on the topic, complete with a fairly detailed account of Llosa’s previous movie, Madeinusa.

Finally, for offline resources on Peruvian film, you’ll have to wait for Jeffery Middents’s forthcoming book. Middents himself is, naturally enough, rather cock-a-hoop at Llosa’s recent success.


La hora azul coverWhereas the Peruvian Alonso Cueto’s previous novel, with its title Grandes miradas (which could translate as something like “Broad Gazes”), suggested an interest in the visible, La hora azul (“The Blue Hour,” winner of the 2005 Herralde Prize) is all about the voice. Almost every character is identified by their distinctive voices; there is even one who has structured his entire wardrobe and habits around his voice, believing it to be “the best and most significant demonstration of his qualities as a Lima gentleman” (214).

It’s true that the story opens with a visual image: the photograph of an apparently enviably successful couple, published in the society pages of a glossy magazine. And moreover that the plot is put into motion by a written text, a letter that the novel’s protagonist, a Lima lawyer by the name of Adrián Ormache, finds among his recently dead mother’s effects. But the illusion created by the photograph is unreliable: the gloss of success conceals a sinister family secret. And the letter takes us back to the last words spoken by Adrián’s father, whose “hoarse voice,” a “voice of curt exclamations” (23), had spoken to him of a woman in the highland province of Ayacucho, a woman the son should try to find.

Adrián had taken little account of his father’s dying words, thinking them to be just another symptom of a final delirium. But then his brother, a brother who had “inherited the hoarse voice” of his father (22), tells the story of his father’s activities as military commander in Ayacucho during the war against Sendero Luminoso. Apparently, he used to round up women suspected of being Senderistas, bring them back to base and have sex with them, then pass them on to his junior officers who would also rape them, before delivering the coup de grace with a bullet in their brains. But there was one victim whom he kept to himself, locked up in his room. And this woman somehow escaped from her living hell of enforced servitude and torture. Was this living testament to his father’s brutality, the woman that Adrián was now to track down?

The plot, then, consists in the son’s attempt to locate the one who got away from his father. In part the quest is driven by the need to maintain her silence, to preserve family honour and professional decorum by ensuring that she doesn’t talk to the press. But Ormache’s investigation is also a journey into the bleak secrets of Peruvian society, the gap that separates rich and poor, coast and highlands, light-skinned and dark-skinned. To inform himself about the atrocities committed during the war, he reads a book entitled Las voces de los desaparecidos: “The Voices of the Disappeared.” There is an increasingly testimonial quality to the lawyer’s obsession and also therefore to the novelist’s design. La hora azul aims in part to give voice back to the subaltern voiceless.

But it’s not that Ayacuchan peasants have no voice; just that the Lima elite fail to recognize them. Indeed Miriam, Adrián’s father’s former prisoner, made good her escape from the military barracks by imitating the voice of one of her torturers. And on the other hand, the objects of the lawyer’s investigation manage to retain some sense of autonomy and control only by refusing to speak: for much of the novel they maintain a guarded silence, frustrating his attempts to reach out, to play the liberal who only wants to hear their stories. For when finally he does hear something of the violence and suffering that his father, amongst others, had inflicted on the highland population, the best that Adrián can come out with are the most banal of platitudes that leave even him feeling “insuperably ridiculous” (251).

Hence this mystery novel ends with silence on some of its main points. Miriam dies, we know not whether from an unexpected heart attack or by her own hand. Before her death, she had equivocated when asked whether or not her child was Ormache’s son, and so Adrián’s brother. Her uncle refuses to clarify things, saying only “with a velvety voice” that “she told me various things, but that is between her and me” (284, 282). And finally, the son himself, Miguel, is unnaturally silent. Adrián diagnoses this as a problem, and has him sent to a psychologist who promises to teach him to find his voice. But even so, and however much the protagonist declares that the poor, the people of Ayacucho, “are like us,” he remains unnerved and disconcerted by “their silence faced with the brutal repartition of death in which they have been born.” No wonder that he also concludes that “the line that separates us from them is marked by the blade of an enormous knife” (274).

It is the violence of hundreds of years of colonial and postcolonial oppression that ensures that the liberal project of “giving voice” is doomed to failure.


Sin compasion posterHalfway through Francisco Lombardi’s Sin compasión, one Alejandro Velaochaga drops in unexpectedly on the protagonist, a student by the name of Ramón Romano. Velaochaga is a rather sinister character, and he’s made his may into the room while Romano is still asleep. Romano, troubled enough by the notion that he is being persecuted on all sides, wakes up to his visitor’s presence with a shock. Part of Velaochaga’s creepiness, however, is that he is quite suave and unruffled, in total contrast to his unwilling host.

In response to the question as to how he got in, Velaochaga continues cleaning his pipe, shrugs his shoulders slightly, and responds “Through the door.” Leaning in slightly in a gesture of familiarity he add, “My advice would be that you get yourself a bolt. They’re not expensive.” The irony of Velaochaga’s apparent concern for Romano’s security and peace of mind is that he represents the greatest danger both to the young man and to his even more defenseless girlfriend. For this sophisticated gentleman in his immaculately tailored suit turns out to be both a lecher and a blackmailer. And it is he who is the first to unearth the guilty secret that has Ramona so on edge: that Ramón has brutally murdered his landlady and her husband.

Leaving Ramona’s quarters, Velaochaga extends his hand to the young man, who rather reluctantly shakes it. “It’s been a pleasure to meet you,” the old man says. “You’re quite a character. Really.” Then, looking around at his surroundings before finally taking his leave, he adds “And you have a very interesting place. It has the feel of a neorealist film.”

Indeed, Sin compasión has more than a touch of neorealism. It’s an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, with Romano for Romanovich Raskolnikov, set in the curiously timeless center of Lima. There is little here of either the city’s many barrios and suburbs, or the hustle and bustle that most strikes a visitor to the city. This is a strangely stripped down version of Lima. The color palette is muted browns and creams, full of shadows and crevices. Interiors include some of the city’s oldest bars (such as the magnificent Quierolo, in which Romano meets the prostitute Sonia’s drunken father), which carry an air of dowdy resistance to time’s encroachment, and exteriors are almost all confined to the narrow streets and lanes around the Plaza de Armas. And almost at the end of the film, Velaochaga goes to the Plaza itself to sit on the Cathedral steps, where after a contemplative cigarette he commits suicide. But the square is deserted, and so nobody is there to witness his inglorious end.

Lombardi therefore achieves a sort of universality that gives weight and depth to this Peruvian adaptation of the classic Russian novel. Lima becomes archetype of urbanity in general, and the continuities of the urban experience between nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There will always be a measure of poverty, squalor, prostitution, drunkenness, injustice, debt, violence, guilt, and so on. No matter if the city in question is Dostoyevky’s St Petersburg or Dickens’s London, De Sica’s Rome or Lombardi’s Peru.

Sin compasion stillAnd in the end there will always be a disparity between the law and compassion. Indeed, the film’s title is oddly inaccurate. Romano’s problem is not that he lacks compassion–the notion that he believes that only the intellectual and moral elite can forge their own laws is mentioned but scarcely developed. In fact, he kills the landlady out of compassion, having seen the way in which they treat their tenants. Romano refuses to accede to any transcendent moral code, so that although the entire story is told in flashback, framed as a conversation with a prison priest, he adamantly denies that he is in fact confessing. He has nothing to confess, only a story to tell. And it’s as he expounds that story that it becomes clear that neither the legal code nor organized religion can fully comprehend for his actions.

Romano needs not to confess, but to narrate, and by narrating to understand and allow us too to understand how the most cold-blooded murder can be motivated by the most compassionate of intentions.