In the Belly of the Horse

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Eliana Tobias’s In the Belly of the Horse chronicles the aftermath of Peru’s civil war of the 1980s and 1990s. It opens with a scene in a small village in the northern highlands, as the Shining Path guerrilla approach and a father seeks to take his seven-year-old son (Salvador) to safety, leaving his wife to look after their property until he can return. But he never comes back, and the novel chronicles the fate of this splintered family over the following fifteen to twenty years.

Salvador and his father are soon separated, and we are left guessing as to the latter’s fate for most of the narrative that follows. The boy, however, makes his way to the nearest large town (Cajamarca) where he falls in with another homeless child, a girl called Lucía who shows him how to make a precarious living on the streets, begging or stealing food and sleeping at night in the local cemetery. Later Salvador manages to track down his uncle (his mother’s brother), who takes him in and arranges for his education when the two of them subsequently move to the national capital, Lima.

Gradually, Salvador finds his feet and even thrives, getting a job as a policeman and meeting and marrying a psychologist (Carmen) who works for the postwar Truth and Reconciliation Commission. At first his uncle warns him against looking too hard for his missing parents. His fear is that the boy will come under suspicion for having too great an interest in the fate of people tainted with association with “terrorism,” as so many were in the highlands even when they were in fact the victims of guerrilla action. But as time goes on, and at the urging of his wife, he becomes increasingly involved in the search for the truth of what happened not only to his own parents, but also to the tens of thousands more who died or were displaced during the conflict.

Meanwhile, in parallel, we also follow the tracks of Salvador’s mother, Otilia, as she first seeks refuge in a remote mining encampment and later migrates to the United States. She, too, cannot put out of her mind her missing family members. And likewise she becomes involved in broader efforts to seek information and gain justice for those affected by state violence and bureaucratic obfuscation, joining a church-based group with representatives from places such as Chile and Guatemala. She even returns to Peru, making affidavits and chasing down what few leads she has to trace her missing husband and son, but to no avail.

Ultimately (and this is a spoiler, but no great surprise to the reader), Salvador and Otilia are reunited, and he meets her in her new home in California, but this is not until almost the very end of the book, which then ends rather abruptly: he returns to Lima, but she stays in the USA, only to visit at Christmas when she convinces her son to lay a stone in his (still) missing father’s name at a monument for the disappeared.

Overall, mother and son are together in this book for only about twenty-five of its 260 pages. Indeed, the family group (parents plus child) has already broken up by page three. And there is little attempt to reconstruct memories of when it had been whole. So what is lost is somehow intangible; we are led to feel very keenly that something is missing, but it is never quite clear what that something may have been. When Salvador and Otilia are together once more at last, their relationship is charged with uncertainty and distance. There is, after all, no going back, even if either of them were able to recall what they might be going back to. They are not the same people that they once were. If anything, what most unites them is this shared sense of loss that should notionally disappear once they have found each other. So perhaps the only way for them to maintain that connection is by denying, in part, that they have really been found. In other words, they paradoxically need to hold on to their loss in order to overcome it.

Indeed, distance and misconnection predominate throughout the novel. Almost every relationship that the two characters establish in the interim, while they await their predestined re-encounter, is somehow incomplete or unsatisfactory. On Salvador’s part, for instance, he is never really close to his uncle, while Lucía remains remote and unapproachable right until she comes to her own untimely end. Even his marriage is characterized by strikingly stilted conversation, as he and his wife swap talking points more often than they exchange intimacies: “Salvador knew well how hard it was to seek restorative justice and he worried that Carmen might be pushed to the edge. ‘Stories like theirs must be told,’ she said, smiling weakly” (203). In fact, the prose throughout the novel tends to be wooden, as though to remind us that none of the characters ever feels particularly comfortable with their lot: everyone is portrayed as though they were consistently on edge, awkward and unsettled.

In short, this book is not an easy read. It has few pretensions to literariness or lyricism. Even the title, which promises to carry some kind of metaphorical or allegorical import, turns out to have a surprisingly literal meaning: as a child, Salvador was briefly hidden by his father inside the belly of an eviscerated horse. But perhaps all this points to one of the book’s (inadvertent) virtues: its portrayal of violence and alienation as mundane and even banal, devoid of any deeper meaning, but no less traumatic for all that.

Desborde subterráneo

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For those whose vision of Peruvian music goes no further than pan pipes, or perhaps at best the Afro-Peruvian chanteuse Susana Baca, Fabiola Bazo’s Desborde subterráneo: 1983-1992 will come as something of a shock. For it documents Lima’s punk and post-punk scene in the 1980s, featuring myriad mostly short-lived bands that reveled in names such as Narcosis and Psicosis, Eutanasia (Euthanasia) and Ataque Frontal (Frontal Attack), not to mention Kaos General (General Chaos) and Sociedad de Mierda (Shitty Society). “El Condor Pasa” this is not. Nor is it exactly the “world music” beloved of Peter Gabriel, Luaka Bop, or Starbucks.

But the frantic, frenetic explosion of musical energy captured by Bazo’s book, richly illustrated with grainy photographs and fading handbills, emerged less from some autochthonous folk tradition (despite the proto-punk of Lima’s pathbreaking garage-rock band Los Saicos in the 1960s) than from disaffected Peruvian youth turning to the world at large in search of ways to express their anger at the constraints imposed by a traditional society suddenly thrown into crisis. For the 1980s in Peru were years of insurgency and repression, civil war and car bombs, blackouts and curfews, as the Maoist “Shining Path” guerrilla fought a “prolonged people’s war” to bring down a state that reacted with increasing authoritarianism and almost random brutality.

It was in this context that adolescents in Lima searched out precious imported records and tapes, soon pirated and exchanged in the flourishing informal market of street traders and hawkers, then begged, borrowed, or stole musical instruments to play and record their own frustrations and anxieties, with lyrics written in Spanish and specific to the local context. In turn, then, they passed around demos and cassettes, or organized impromptu concerts and gigs in nightclubs and private houses, to pogo to songs such as “Toque de Queda” (“Curfew”), “Sucio Policía” (“Dirty Cop”), “¿Dónde está la libertad?” (“Where’s the Freedom?”), or “Ya no formo parte de esto” (“I’m No Longer Part of This”). And though this music started as something hidden or underground, as Bazo’s title (“Subterranean Outpouring”) indicates, it soon overflowed and, however fleetingly, caught the mood of a significant section of young people across the city, from a range of backgrounds, ethnicities, and social classes.

At least briefly, it seemed that if there was one thing that all Peruvians under the age of (say) twenty-five could agree on, it was that society was shit, and that the armed forces and government were as bad as the so-called terrorists. Economic crisis and hyper-inflation only added to the feeling that there was really “no future” for the country. For the most part, the subterraneans or “subtes” disdained politics, as the political system was manifestly broken across the spectrum from Left to Right. In Bazo’s words, “They had no political agenda or plan of action. Their songs denounced the burdens of a decaying society. In reality theirs were cries of impotence and very individualistic personal alienation” (52)

The irony, however, as Bazo makes clear, is that the punk rejection or refusal of established norms was largely a reflection of new social realities that were rapidly transforming Peru. As such, the “subtes” hardly offered an alternative to the broader movements around them; if anything, they were rather mainstream.

In some ways, the punks of Peru’s capital had much in common with the militants of Shining Path, though their backgrounds were usually different–urban rather than rural, for instance; skeptics rather than believers in Peru’s potential for modernization and radical renovation. Bazo strenuously resists the comparison, but Shining Path likewise looked overseas, in their case to a strange combination of Chinese Communism and their leader Abimael Guzmán’s idiosyncratic reading of Kant, for forms of expression suited to local frustrations and deep disappointment at the historic failures of the Peruvian state. Moreover, motivated as much by affect as by reason, the Maoists and the punks alike were often drawn to a mythology of violence as a purgative force, a remedy of both first and last resort: as the Eutanasia song “Ratas Callejeras” (“Street Rats”) puts it, “Anger says it’s time to start [. . .] a whole army of rats will march through this dying city’s shit” (178).

On the other hand, Bazo does argue that, if only in their most utopian moments, the “subtes” were equally like Peru’s mid-1980s populist president Alan García in their effort to put forward a “multi-class message” that might transcend the deep divisions between Lima’s rich and poor (28). The book laments that the punks had no more success in this than did the ill-fated García. Indeed, the second half of Desborde subterráneo focuses on the protracted disintegration of the punk scene, torn apart by hostilities that followed the lines of class (and implicitly also racial) difference and inequality. Bazo seems to have more sympathy with the so-called “pitupunks” or “posh punks” than with what she portrays as the rather more violent, unpredictable, and ultimately self-consciously political second-wave of punk bands that came from Lima’s marginal neighbourhoods. But she has to admit that one of the latter’s representatives, Sociedad de Mierda’s Pedro “Tóxico,” has a point or two in a fanzine article in which he writes: “I don’t know, but I think I hate the pitupunks. That’s why I don’t believe anything they say, because what I do know for sure is that one day, sooner or later, I’ll be working for one of them: because that’s what they’ll be: BOSSES. My bosses, my exploiters” (165).

But the book ultimately suggests that the “subte” scene’s social role is best understood in terms of the guiding metaphor of a subterranean “outpouring” or overflow. This image is in turn taken from Peruvian anthropologist José Matos Mar, whose book Desborde popular y crisis del estado depicts an emergent unofficial economic circuit of (Bazo quotes him saying) “unregistered businesses and activities, that operate outside of the legal system or on its borders, often [. . .] creatively developing their own rules of the game” (12). This, of course, is precisely the murky world of street-trading and semi-clandestine pirate reproduction through which punk spread and on which it fed in Lima. It is also the selfsame informal sector that right-wing economist Hernando de Soto praised in his book El otro sendero as an atomized but efficient collection of do-it-yourself entrepreneurs. And perhaps this is how the overtly individualistic “subte” scene was most mainstream of all: it was carried along in a broader flux of uprooted people who were simultaneously abandoned and celebrated in the neoliberal transformation of the welfare state into security apparatus. The punk (at least, pitupunk) disdain for politics should then be understood in the context of a Peru that voted in an outsider president such as Alberto Fujimori (a sort of proto-Trump) and then applauded as he dissolved Congress and assumed authoritarian powers in order to defeat “terrorism.”

Myself, I wonder if it is really true that there was never any hope for an alternative, even in all the chaos and carnage of the time. Bazo, however, seems to think so when she boldly declares that, when the dust finally settled, “the system [had] shown, once again, that it couldn’t be destroyed” (167). On the contrary, one could very well argue that Peru’s postcolonial creole republic was destroyed, just not in the ways that anyone had expected or desired.

Yet finally, if I am stressing the politics (and sociology) of the punk and post-punk scene that this book depicts, it is because that is what Bazo likewise does. Perhaps surprisingly, she seems rather uninterested in the music itself, preferring to focus on either broad labels (punk, hardcore, metal, and so on) or specific lyrics, which she often quotes at length. We get very little sense of the sound of the subtes. Now maybe this is because, as she tells us, “the important thing [was] the attitude” (148). But surely something can be said about the music, not least because (deluded or otherwise) so many of the informants quoted here consistently tell us that it’s the music that matters. What was the panorama of sounds, rhythms, beats, resonance and noise that energized so many so completely at least for a short time? How did it change and develop, and how much if at all did it end up diverging from its “world music” (Anglo-American or Spanish) models?

Similarly, it is a little odd that a book published by an art gallery (Lima’s Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, which organized a show to accompany it) should have so little to say about the visual components of the scene it is describing. For all the copious illustrations of comics, fanzines, photographs, handbills, posters, and so on, these generally go unanalyzed, unremarked. Hence the paradox that a book about a phenomenon that it hesitates to call a movement, precisely because of its obstreperous refusal of any political claims or demands, in the end views this same phenomenon almost entirely through political categories that the punk scene manifestly overflows or exceeds.

Fortunately, however, this marvelous book overflows too, goes beyond the boundaries that it itself sets: it overwhelms us with its visual charge, and it makes us ache to hear the music much like Lima’s “subtes” ached to hear it themselves. Enough of pan pipes! Desborde subterráneo inspires us to rethink and re-hear (or hear for the very first time) Peru’s music, and perhaps the soundscape of Latin America as a whole.

Rethinking Community from Peru

[Crossposted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective.]

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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)

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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.

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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.