prize!

As I arrived at work this morning, someone I didn’t know shouted my name from across the street, and then came running over. He wanted to give me a bottle of Prosecco, for my talk last month on “From Access to Interactivity” at “Access 2011.” Many thanks to the librarians. Fine people!

And then this afternoon, the folk from the Modern Language Association were in touch. I’ve won a prize! Well sort of: an honorable mention. For “an outstanding book published in English or Spanish in the field of Latin American and Spanish literatures and cultures.”

Here’s what they say:

A study that moves elegantly and daringly from political theory to cultural analysis, Posthegemony: Political Theory and Latin America puts Latin America on the map as a complex region in which hegemony, habit, and affect are constantly being contested and renegotiated in response to the vitality of the multitude. Jon Beasley-Murray does this through a series of engaging discussions of contemporary theorists who dialogue directly with Latin American test cases highlighting the relation between Peronist populism, hegemony theory, and the limits of civil society. With clarity, intellectual rigor, and conceptual sophistication, Beasley-Murray seeks to challenge the dominant critical paradigms of the cultural-studies-oriented humanities and social sciences.

I think I may be drinking that Prosecco tonight.

Mistral

Gabriela Mistral was the first Latin American to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1945. To date, she is still the only Latin American woman to receive the prize. The prize citation states that her award recognizes “her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world.”

Introducing her before her banquet speech at the occasion of the prize-giving, the Swedish Academy’s representative stresses the geographical distance she has travelled: “From a distant continent, where the summer sun now shines, you have ventured the long journey to Gösta Berling’s land, when the darkness of winter broods at its deepest.” The implication here is that this voyage is some sort of novelty, that Mistral has been plucked from her naturally sunny climes to receive her award in frosty Northern Europe. In reality, however, the poet’s biography is marked by constant mobility: first in Chile itself, where she worked in secondary schools from Antofagasta in the north to Punta Arenas in the far south; and then, after leaving Chile in 1922, as she moved between consular posts and teaching positions in Mexico, France, Spain, Portugal, Guatemala, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and finally the continental USA where she was to die in 1957. In short, the long trip to Sweden was hardly Mistral’s only transatlantic or transhemispheric trip.

The Nobel prize committee’s point, however, is no doubt more metaphorical than literal: it may feel that “the darkness of winter broods at its deepest” in that Europe had only recently emerged from the Second World War. As the first post-war recipient of the Literature prize, Mistral’s task is to bring some Latin American optimism and “idealistic aspirations” to a climate in which, as German theorist Theodor Adorno suggested, it felt barbaric to write poetry in the wake of Auschwitz.

In response, Mistral says very little about herself and nothing about her (or indeed anybody else’s) literary work. She presents herself as the representative of Chilean democracy and Latin American culture, both of which tells us are indebted to European social democracy. In a speech whose hallmark is modesty and self-abnegation, she thanks “the cosmopolitan spirit of Alfred Nobel” for including Latin America within its remit and “the Swedish democratic tradition” for showing an openness to renovation while adhering to “the core of the old virtues, the acceptance of the present and the anticipation of the future.” If her prize signals the New World’s “idealistic aspirations,” Mistral is far from playing the part of enfant terrible or radical innovator. A stress rather on “tradition” and “heritage,” both her own and that of the hosts, is the keynote of her modest acceptance as part of the pantheon of global culture.

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.