dreams

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.

teta

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.

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.

Read more… (.pdf file)

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.