voice

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.

compassion

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.

Vilcas

I mentioned this paper some time ago, but I realize that I never uploaded it. Here goes…

Having some time to spare in Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, highland Peru, I climbed the pyramid that looms over the small town. Vilcashuamán (also known simply as Vilcas) was once a significant Inca cultural and administrative center, occupying a strategic location at the crossroads of the various trade routes that crisscrossed the Inca empire: it was the point at which the road from Cuzco to the Pacific met the Empire’s main North-South highway. Moreover, according to Spanish chronicler Pedro Cieza de León’s reports of native accounts, the town was at the geographical midpoint of the Tawantisuyu, the Inca Empire: “for they state that it is the same distance from Quito to Vilcas as from Vilcas to Chile, the limits of their empire” (126). But Vilcas is now a town full of ruins–though one might also say that the place is a set of ruins that enclose a town, as it can be hard to say where the ruins end and the town starts, and vice versa. Houses and shops nestle up against or are perched upon Inca walls and stones, and are themselves made of this same recycled material. As a result, the site is, in Gasparini and Margolies’s words, in an “advanced state of destruction and deformation” (112). It remains, however, undeniably impressive, in part because here you are everywhere up against and on top of the ruins, like it or not. There is no measured distance between contemporary life and sacrosanct historical artifact: no ropes, no fences marking off the museal from the everyday. The ruins of Vilcashuamán are fully if sparsely inhabited; they show no signs of their exceptionality. In John Hemming’s words, conjuring up a scene of desolation, “Vilcashuamán is now a small village, remote on its hill-top, perched on the ruins of the great Inca city whose temples have been pillaged for building blocks, and surrounded by rolling, hilly country with few trees and little population” (Monuments of the Incas 187). History seems to have passed it by, to have set it free from whatever stories it once inspired. Certainly, when I had been taken to Vilcas for the day, with a group of anthropologists and aid workers, I had had no idea I would end up climbing a pyramid.

Vilcashuaman
Indeed, these are in no way the most famous ruins in Peru, and are far from being the most visited, meriting at best a couple of lines in the guidebooks. Rather, that honor goes to Machu Picchu, now perhaps South America’s foremost tourist attraction, which attracts around 450,000 visitors a year, up to 2,000 a day. Machu Picchu stands synecdochically for Peru, and often enough for Latin America as a whole. Arguably, Machu Picchu is a more “modern” set of ruins, being “discovered” (better, invented) only in the early twentieth century, with Hiram Bingham’s Yale-sponsored expedition of 1911. Bingham was fêted for having discovered the “lost city of the Incas.” That claim, however, rings rather hollow when it is realized not only that it was a local tavern proprietor and landlord, Melchor Arteaga, who led him to the site “with the promise of a whole silver dollar,” but also that Bingham himself noted graffiti on the stones: “the name, ‘Lizarraga,’ and the year, ‘1902’” (Alfred Bingham 6, 13). Bingham gave this Lizarraga credit for the “discoveries” in his first book about the expedition, Inca Land; yet by the time of his later account, Lost City of the Incas, Lizarraga’s name disappears (Alfred Bingham 26). Meanwhile, Bingham’s opinion of indigenous knowledge can be inferred from his own comment that “readers of Inca Land will remember that Professor Harry W. Foote and I had often been obliged to add, when discussing reports of ‘noteworthy and important ruins’–‘but he may have been lying’” (Hiram Bingham 10). He observes that the local campesinos do not mark the ruins in any particular way: “Presumably, to him and his kind, Inca ruins of temples and palaces built by their remote kindred are not in themselves interesting but merely evidence that the latter found the land worth occupying and cultivating” (10). In this sense, Bingham’s achievement was to put Machu Picchu into discourse: to articulate its stones, to make them speak in the recognizably modern idiom of ruination.

This, then, is where Vilcashuamán is different. For the ruins of Vilcas have, without entering the narratives of international tourism, and despite not being excavated until the 1980s, a much longer history of being repeatedly articulated and rearticulated to competing stories about Peruvian modernity, from almost the very moment of Spanish conquest and so their initial fall into ruin. We might therefore say that Vilcas is more eloquent about Peru’s modernity than Machu Picchu, especially now that the latter has assumed the status of a brand, a signifier almost without content–like the Nike swoosh or McDonalds’ golden arches. Machu Picchu says “Peru,” or says “Latin America,” but says almost nothing about these places. By contrast, in the to and fro of the conflicting versions of what Vilcas’s ruins might be made to say, a whole series of narratives have been advanced about historicity and hegemony, modernity and, more to the point, the (still essentially modern) lament that Peru has failed to become modern. Mario Vargas Llosa notoriously opens his monumental novel Conversation in the Cathedral with the question “At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?” (3). We might not know when; but it would not be far-fetched to argue that Vilcashuamán is a contender for a precise place where Peru fucked itself up. It is a place marked by the series of interruptions that, for a writer such as Vargas Llosa, indicate the fuck-ups that have (he would claim) stalled progress towards modernity. Interruptions, symbolized or, better, materialized in the strewn stones of the former Inca edifices, that have served as fissures within which variously confident, wistful, and messianic narratives have sought firm footing, like weeds in the dirt. Yet these interruptions have also, in almost the same moment, brought these stories to their own ruination, their disarticulation.

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betrayal

The current renaissance in Peruvian cinema is unexpected to say the least. It was just a couple of years ago that Sarah Barrow observed that this was “a national cinema in crisis,” pointing to a drastic decline in what was already a pretty minimal level of state funding for film-making, as well as to a dearth of production. As she notes, “between 1993 and 1997, just four films were made and released in Peru” (56), two of which were directed by the country’s one cineaste of international repute, Francisco Lombardi, and that only thanks to the aid of transnational co-production and foreign capital. Not a single Peruvian film was released in 1997. And the turn of the century hardly heralded much improvement: “between 1997 and 2001 just 10 Peruvian feature films [were] produced” (43). At the best of times Peru’s cinematic fortunes had been precarious; now it seemed that the country’s truncated filmic tradition was finally coming to an unheroic end. Even the transplanted B-Movie director, Luis Llosa, appeared to be in the doldrums: he had not made a movie since 1997’s underwhelming disaster flick Anaconda, and had turned instead to TV, producing series with titles such as Cazando a un millonario (“Hunting a Millionaire”) and the soap operas Latin Lover and La mujer de Lorenzo (“Lorenzo’s Woman”). In Peru, it was almost impossible to track down Peruvian movies; video chains were full of Hollywood blockbusters and martial arts or action films. In 2004 Lima’s grubby Filmoteca, housed in a corner of the venerable national Art Museum, in a theater with poor sound and worse sightlines, closed its doors after sixteen years of operation.

Today, however, more films than ever are being produced in Peru. 2006, for instance, saw a dozen or more features made. The Filmoteca’s collection transferred to the smart, modern building of the Catholic University’s Cultural Center. Blockbuster Video closed down, but its disappearance has been more than compensated by a flourishing black market trade: in the “Polvos Azules” market in central Lima, for instance, dozens of small stalls offer Peruvian and international art house cinema (as well, of course, as Hollywood hits and US television series) for less than $2 per DVD. Indeed, more generally the cinematic resurgence of the past few years has been propelled by new technology and its informal networks. Blogs buzz with discussion about national cinema. Trailers and even entire films are uploaded to YouTube. And most importantly, the arrival of high-quality digital videography and editing facilities at relatively affordable prices has spread the means of cinematic production further than ever before. The San Marcos University’s Cultural Center recently (November 2007) organized a “First National Festival of Independent Cinema” that showcased features from across the country: regions represented ranged from Puno in the South to Cajamarca in the North. And while the quality of these films is variable (to say the least), they have generated significant excitement, especially in the provinces where they were made, and are inspiring others to try their hands at film-making in turn.

Precisely because of the regional focus of this new cinema, however, the concept of “Peruvian” cinema has to be revised. Of the twelve movies on show at the San Marcos festival, only two were made in Lima. And so Lima, in this context, becomes simply another Peruvian province: the capital can no longer stand in for the country as a whole. “Peruvian” cinema is now a combination of this new, regional cinema plus the continued, if scarcer, work of directors such as Lombardi who fund larger projects via international co-production. In this sense, Barrow’s prediction has come true: Peruvian cinema has disappeared; it has been replaced by subnational and transnational cinemas that challenge the very notion of a “national” cinema. National cinema has been usurped by a non-national or even anti-national cinema that undoes claims to national hegemony. And this non-national, non-Peruvian cinema is subaltern par excellence. It is subaltern because it comprises a betrayal or flight from the idea of a nation that has never come into its own.

Read more… (.pdf file)

demolición

It’s Peruvian (proto)punk. From 1964, would you believe? “Los Saicos” (pronounced “Psychos”) and “Demolición” (“Demolition”)…


The lyrics:

Echemos abajo la estación del tren / demoler, demoler, demoler, demoler / Nos gusta volar estaciones de tren / Ye ye ye ye ye ye ye.

Let’s bring down the train station / Demolish, demolish, demolish, demolish / We like blowing up train stations / Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.

Update: If the video above doesn’t play, try this link.

To hear how that might sound today, here‘s a cover version.

Los Saicos are featured, along with other Peruvian groups of the sixties such as “Traffic Sound” and the “Shains,” in an exhibition “Arte nuevo y el fulgor de la vanguardia” (El Comercio‘s note here) that has just opened in Miraflores, curated by Emilio Tarazona and Miguel López. Go see it if you can.

unironic

Polvo enamorado coverLuis Barrios’s Polvo enamorado is a melodrama set in a small fishing town on the Peruvian coast. The central figure is Natalia, a young woman who was once a nun but then left the convent to marry elderly widower, and town mayor, Matías. But the condition that the obsessively religious Natalia imposed on the marriage was that her virginity should be respected: she would remain chaste and consecrated to Christ. Matías agreed, promising to be more doting father than desirous husband.

Life is placid enough on the surface: Natalia spends most of her days either at mass or in prayer; Matías is ensuring she gets her very own grotto for her upcoming birthday, but pours out his frustrations to the elderly local priest. And the priest in turn tries to convince his most devoted congregant that sex within marriage is really hardly a sin. But nothing seems likely to change in the near future. The only cloud on the horizon is an ongoing dispute between local fishermen and a large corporate enterprise that insists on fishing in their waters.

Under the surface, however, all is not well. Over time Matías, understandably frustrated at his wife’s strictures, has started to take matters into his own hands by periodically doping her bedtime drinks with some kind of sleeping powder, then extracting his conjugal “rights” from her dormant form. And as perhaps a symptom of other repressions, Natalia’s friend Ofelia complains of recurrent stomach-aches for which the doctor can find no physical cause.

Suddenly, all change: one day Natalia wanders into the church and discovers a new priest has arrived in town. Literally smitten, she promptly faints at the sight of the handsome young man in his fetching clerical garb. The priest himself turns out to be more one of the boys than pious defender of the old order. He goes out drinking in bars, takes a leading role in the fishermen’s protest movement, cancels mass for the sake of communal work projects, and sees little reason to take part in the community’s traditional annual pilgrimage to local shrine. Until, that is, Natalia persuades him that it might be a good idea. And so it is while they are camped out in the countryside that the two find themselves in a passionate embrace, and then some. The holy father has usurped the husband’s place.

Polvo enamorado still
To continue the Oedipal theme, it turns out that Matías’s son also has the hots for his young stepmother. And it is he who first suspects the illicit affair, and spills the beans to his dad. The old man reacts with outrage and anger, throwing his son out of the house, but then heads towards the priest’s house to find out for himself what’s going on. It seems that the young lovers have forgotten a golden rule of priest-parishioner sex: keep the front door locked at all times. For the mayor easily wanders in and finds the pair in flagrante. But rather than taking out his anger and disappointment on either his rival or his unfaithful wife, instead he begs Natalia to shoot him with his own pistol. Which she duly does, without too much compunction, loyal at least to one of her spouse’s desires.

However much they are stricken by guilt and shame, neither Natalia nor her lover are in any rush to confess their crime: they burn the body and bury it in a shallow grave, subsequently participating in a mass organized to pray for the disappeared mayor’s safe return. And when the corpse is eventually discovered, just about everybody and anybody except the guilty pair are arrested: a couple of security guards for the fishing company first, and then Matías’s son, whom the local policeman had spied arguing with his father on the fatal night in question.

But the son squeals on the priest, if not on his stepmother. And when finally Natalia decides to turn herself in, her confession is ignored: rather, she’s declared a saint for seeking to take the rap for the imprisoned holy man.

As is evident from this plot description, the film presents a cavalcade of ever more unlikely situations and events. It’s as though the movie, though shot in a style that is in turns soap opera melodrama and stylized art movie (complete with absolutely redundant 360-degree pans, for instance), in fact aspired to be an instance of cinematic magic realism. Why not, in short, accept that the story and characters are already unreal and unlikely enough, and so play up the fantastic to give it some kind of allegorical weight?

But, no. For some reason, we’re supposed to take everything on faith. It’s possible that we’re even expected to believe the notion that the doomed lovers really are modern-day saints. The film shows no flicker of irony, so one can only assume that it really takes itself as seriously as it seems. Personally, I’d rather a real soap opera than this pretend one: kitsch, like fantasy, should be presented knowingly and self-consciously, not treated as though it were real human drama.

unforgiven

Manana te cuento posterIf you come to Eduardo Mendoza’s Mañana te cuento expecting a Peruvian version of American Pie or some other bad-taste Hollywood cocktail of sex, comedy, and adolescence (and all the film’s publicity encourages such expectation), then you’ll find yourself disappointed, or of course pleasantly surprised depending on your taste.

The film does indeed start as a teen romp. The opening sequence switches rapidly between three upper-class young boys with their girlfriends, making out or having sex. At the center of the montage is a fourth boy, Manuel, whose only sexual pleasures are vicarious. It is clear that the film will be about his initiation into the club of the kids who have “gone all the way.”

Later we see the four friends meet up and head out to have some fun: they banter and joke, mess around with other people (competing to hit golfballs at car windscreens; interrupting couples at some lovers’ lane), and boast, exaggerating wildly, about their sexual exploits. Fairly standard comic effect is gained by cutting from the boys’ conversation to the parallel and contrasting exchange of confidences on the part of the three girlfriends. But the funniest and edgiest scene comes as the guys are pulled over by a cop, only for one of them to take advantage of his class status and superior education by pretending to be the Canadian ambassador’s son, who knows no Spanish. The police catch on, however, and extort a bribe from the now rather more subdued gang of would-be hellraisers. Their evening seems to be at an end.

This is when they concoct a plan to take advantage of the fact that one of their houses is empty, the parents away for the night, and hire some high-class call-girls so as to put their braggart discourse into action, as well as to introduce young Manuel into the adult world of sin and sex.

Manana te cuento still
The comedy continues for a while, not least in the way in which the boys constantly reveal their awkwardness and uncertainty when the girls finally arrive, and in the mixture of disdain and curiosity with which the prostitutes view their excitable high-school clients. Moreover, the boys have only been able to afford the services of three women, which leaves the one who draws the short straw (“el Gordo” or “fatty”; he has no other name) to spend the rest of the movie playing video games and generally mooching around the house while his three friends entertain or are entertained by the sex workers.

But slowly and undramatically the tone of the movie starts to shift. It becomes darker and much subtler as over the course of the night the boys do come to learn something about adulthood, Manuel above all, if not in the ways that they quite expected. It’s as though they, too, had thought they were in a Farelly Brothers movie only to realize too late that in fact the film they star in is closer to some poignant Swedish art-house flick. Well, I exaggerate somewhat, but undoubtedly there are aspects of the final half hour that are both touching and powerful, and like the characters themselves you are never quite sure what will happen next. The girls start to unsettle the boys’ objectifying gaze and their sense of who they are or what they really want. The plot is forever balanced precariously on a knife edge, perhaps above all when a handgun without warning appears in the mise en scène. Will it be used? If when, how and by whom?

And the film leaves these questions, and others, open. Not merely because it will shortly be the first Peruvian movie to merit a sequel. More importantly, because the boys come to see that life is difficult and messy, and fun and oblivion can’t simply be bought with your rich parents’ pocket money. Moreover (and pace the film’s title: “I’ll tell you tomorrow”), it’s not exactly obvious what exactly they’ll have to say for themselves the morning after. Their conversations now are less likely to be the same scatter-gun braggadoccio that we saw at the outset. The film has humanized them, just as it humanizes the working girls, but without forgiving them for who they are or for who they think they are. And they’re left unsure as to whether they can ever forgive themselves.

YouTube Link: the boys out and about.