Balún Canán II

Balún Canán cover

The seeds of the disaster sown or foreseen in the first half of Balún Canán are well and truly reaped in the second. Characters drop like flies: the illegitimate nephew Ernesto, cousin Matilde, and ultimately even the son and prospective heir Mario. Meanwhile, the country estate is devoured by fire and the family forced to retreat to the relative safety of Comitán, only for the patriarch César to head off to the regional capital, Tuxtla. Here he bakes in a flea-bitten hotel room with a broken fan as he futilely seeks an audience with the Governor of Chiapas. What’s more, in Tuxtla “it’s hard to distinguish, at first sight, between a señor and anyone else”; in fact “there aren’t really any señores in the strict sense of the term” (229). The whole hierarchical system has shifted, and César finds himself rather nearer the bottom of the pecking order than he would like. But why bother even to save the ancestral estate when, in Comitán, without him, the family is falling apart and coming to what might as well be a dead end. Which is not even the worst of all possible worlds. For family friend Jaime Rovelo, it’s better that the son die than that he turn against all the family stands for, as his own son has with his “belief in these new theories, Communism or whatever you call it” (231).

But there is little to nothing in the way of triumphalism in the novel. Indeed, it ends with a predominant tone of shame and even guilt. For finally the older daughter, whose presence in the novel has been otherwise almost spectral, not only takes up the reins of the narration again in the final section but also intervenes in the plot itself. Or perhaps she does. She hides the key to the chapel in which the children are due to have their first communion. Scared off by the priest and by a prevailing Christian discourse of fire and brimstone (“You need to know the essential thing: That there is a hell” [249]), Mario has told his sister that he doesn’t want to take communion (255). So by misplacing the key, she’s acting on his behalf. But Mario, always weak (and if it weren’t for the fact that he’s the designated Argüello heir, as much of a non-entity as his un-named sister), takes a turn for the worse, causing consternation in the household. In his delirium, apparently he keeps returning to what his sister has done. His mother reports, without understanding or really taking him seriously: “I don’t know what he’s saying about a key. All night he was saying the same thing over and over” (262). So the daughter seems to feel that she is responsible for his decline and (ultimately) death. “It’s not Mario,” she says by his coffin, “It’s my guilt that’s rotting away at the bottom of that box” (277). And then she asks to go to family tomb, where she leaves the chapel key while saying a prayer, not so much to God as to the forefathers with whom Mario will now be in perpetuity, “that they be good” with him, “that they play with him, that they spend time with him. Because now that I know the taste of loneliness I don’t want him to have to try it” (283). The book ends, then, with a double scene of mis/recognition. Out on the street, the narrator thinks that she sees her old nurse, but it turns out that she’s wrong and that “all Indians have the same face” (285). Back in the house, she then inscribes Mario’s name on any surface to hand, bricks, walls, a notebook, “because Mario is far away. And I’d like to ask him for forgiveness” (286).

But if this is the daughter’s intervention into the plot, her belated grasp at subjectivity as she acts on behalf of her brother only (perhaps) to provoke his final sickness, then it’s strangely equivocal. For it is something like a hidden plot, an action that goes almost totally unseen. The mother, after all, is convinced that the cause of her son’s illness and death is witchcraft: the Indians back at the ranch have cast some kind of spell over him. The reader may attribute his decline to something more mundane, such as appendicitis. His sister’s responsibility, and her shame and guilt, escape and silently defy both possibilities. What, in any case, is the source of her guilt? Is it that she has caused his death? That she has allowed him to die without the blessing of a first communion? Or simply that she has left him on his own, albeit in the name of freeing him from both the institution of the church and the weight of inheritance, of an older and more deeply embedded shame: the guilt pertaining to the entire class of white landowners. The sister then cannot escape her own shame, the disgraceful fact that she is no longer able to recognize the woman who suckled her, prayed for her, and raised her. She has to live with that guilt and betrayal, and she has to bear it without Mario by her side, and without its even being noted or acknowledged by anyone else around her. The daughter, the un-named narrator, has finally assumed her role as a sense of conscience that will forever, Cassandra-like, be silenced or ignored.


After a fun class yesterday on Neruda, in which students acted out Poem 15 from Veinte poemas de amor and then wrote letters or poems to the poet from the point of view of the woman or women he addresses (my favorite: “¿Pór que no te callas tú de vez en cuando?”), I was extolling the virtues of UBC undergraduates to some friends.

As further evidence, my buddy Alec mentioned the following video, produced by a UBC class in response to a now somewhat infamous article in Maclean’s arguing that Canadian universities are “too Asian”:

For more, see Tetsuro Shigematsu’s account of the making of the video, “Too Asian?”, and Brian Lamb’s take, “Is UBC ‘too Asian’? Let’s sing and find out”.


Well, yes, she is a bigot.

As Milena Popova points out (but sadly precious few others), what Gillian Dufffy said was indeed unacceptable.

Indeed, Duffy herself knows it. Here’s the interesting thing: she presents her xenophobic comments as though she were bravely speaking out in the face of some tyranny of political correctness:

You can’t say anything about the immigrants because you’re saying that you’re… all these Eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?

Presumably the ellipsis here indicates that “you can’t say anything” about immigration because (surprise surprise!) you’ll only be accused of racism.

Sadly, however, “Bigotgate” proves the opposite.

Gordon Brown can only point out anti-immigrant bigotry in what he assumes to be the privacy of the back seat of his campaign car. And when it turns out that this candid moment was overheard by Sky News’s microphone, he cravenly apologizes (first on air, then in person) rather than simply making the point more eloquently and forcefully in public than in private.

Meanwhile, once again in the leader’s debate Brown competes with Cameron to present himself as more forcefully against immigration even than Clegg’s tepid proposal for a regional points-based policy and the occasional amnesty.

It is as though the BNP and the Daily Mail had fully succeeded in setting the agenda on immigration. For some reason it is now impossible, except (supposedly) discreetly and in private, to point out the everyday bigotry that blights British public discourse.

This is a craven capitulation by a political class that should and (as Brown’s indiscretion shows) actually does know better.

And it foments a strangely unabashed xenophobia that hesitates only briefly to announce itself, like a nervous tic, before continuing on regardless: “I know this is racist, but I’ll say it none the less and I dare you to correct me…”


It’s three in the morning, many hours after the Winter Olympics came to a close and (more to the point) long after Sid “the Kid” Crosby scored the dramatic overtime goal that gave Team Canada its final, and most dearly coveted, gold medal by beating the USA at (ice) hockey.

Yet even now I can hear the shouts and celebrations on the streets of downtown Vancouver below my apartment window. And I don’t even live that close to the epicenter of the extraordinary street party that broke out as soon as that puck entered the net. The celebrations are no doubt in full swing on Granville and Robson Streets, some six or seven blocks away.

In the afternoon and early evening, the so-called Granville Entertainment District and nearby Robson Square were mobbed with thousands of mostly red-and-white clad revelers, chanting “Go Canada Go” or “Crosby, Crosby, Crosby,” giving each other high fives and hugs, ringing cowbells and hooting horns, climbing lampposts and bus shelters, and bursting into impromptu renditions of “O Canada!”

This notoriously reticent and self-effacing country has perhaps finally learned the trappings and gestures of nationalism. Of course, Canadians have always quietly considered themselves superior; but the emphasis has been on the quiet sense of distinction. Indeed, the exuberant displays of pride visible over the past few hours would previously have been considered to be precisely the kind of gauche jingoism that Canada had associated with other, more vulgar and less civilized nations.

So one consequence of all the flag-waving and chanting is that Canadians may be a little less smug in the future: they’ve shown that they can be just as blindly patriotic as (say) their neighbors to the south. As they become more ostentatiously Canadian, they undermine that sense of entitlement that comes precisely from the notion that “ostentatious” and “Canadian” are two words that don’t really belong in the same sentence.

The more visibly Canadian they become, the less “Canadian” they actually are.

And perhaps it’s for this reason that so many of the most visibly and audibly frenetic of the revelers were the so-called “new” Canadians, the relatively recent immigrants (and their children) from China, Japan, India, and so on.

Vancouver is, after all, an extraordinarily multicultural city; about 40% of its inhabitants were born outside of Canada, most of whom come from Asia though with a significant proportion also from places such as Southern or Central Europe. And yet there are times when this is not so obvious: the various ethnic groups are parceled out around the city and a huge number of Chinese Canadians, for instance, live and work in suburbs such as Richmond, just to the south.

Yet it was clear that very many of the crowds who poured across the bridges (some of which were soon closed to vehicular traffic because of the sheer numbers of pedestrians) to get to the downtown peninsula came from precisely these outlying suburbs.

I wonder if this is because painting your face with a maple leaf or waving the flag from a hockey stick is a form of nationalism that is more available to new immigrants than the rather more insidious distanced self-regard that has hitherto characterized Canadians’ sense of themselves. It is a habitus that can more easily be picked up or (better) incarnated, whatever one’s background or skin color.

In any case, with the Olympic celebrations, and with the multitude that packed its thoroughfares to shout and holler, Vancouver city center felt distinctly less white than it does on a regular business day.

And it is certain that the experience of the Olympic Canada (literally) on the streets was much more multiracial than the image presented by either the opening or the closing ceremonies, both of which gave us only a tokenism towards First Nations as a flimsy cover for an otherwise overwhelmingly white and European depiction of the country. (As many have pointed out, for instance, there was no official recognition at all of Asian Canada during the opening ceremony held in this most Asian of Canadian cities.)

Almost four years ago, and while recognizing all the legitimate critiques of this over-commercialized festival brought to us by Coke and Visa, I asked “why not rescue something of the (perhaps utopian) commonality that still resides in the Olympics, rather than, inaccurately, damning them as simply another set of enclosures?”

It seems to me that we have indeed seen some of this utopian commonality in action on the streets of Vancouver over the past couple of weeks, albeit (ironically) ultimately clad in a maple-leaf flag. And we have seen both its distance from the official representation as well as the ways in which it potentially challenges, transforms, and ultimately undermines the national symbols around which it seems, superficially perhaps, to be organized.

Update: Mike Cowie says something similar about this being an Olympics on and of the streets.


Journey to Nowhere coverAbout halfway through Shiva Naipaul’s Journey to Nowhere, the author finds himself at a “New Earth Exposition” in San Francisco, confronted with a panoply of hippies and New Agers as well as people he describes as “shaggy feminists, liberated homosexuals” and “earnest, mustachioed teachers worried about Energy” (188). He falls into conversation with a succession of representatives of the “World Hunger Project,” one of whom remarks “I can see you’re a pretty negative type, Shiva. [. . .] You’re hung up on logic and all that kind of bullshit” (198). For Naipaul, this is one of those moments when the deluded proponents of alternative lifestyles condemn themselves, leaving little more to be said. But there’s no doubt that the hippy was right about one thing: Shiva is certainly a “pretty negative type.”

Journey to Nowhere is an account of the Jonestown disaster (about which I’ve written before). Naipaul’s book, published in 1980, is written almost in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and indeed he visits Guyana just a couple of weeks after this “revolutionary suicide” of almost a thousand Americans, at a time when there is still much press interest in the events.

What makes Naipaul’s approach different is that he believes that hitherto the blame has not been spread widely enough. “No one,” he argues, “accepted any measure of personal responsibility for what had happened” (228). For instance, he quotes numerous survivors and defectors from the People’s Temple but notes that not a single one “has ever admitted any culpability for the carnage that occurred at Jonestown. Not one has ever conceded that past complicities may have contributed to the Guyana tragedy” (157). This was no case of simple brainwashing on the part of a devious would-be messiah, Naipaul tells us; they were in fact all in it together. What’s more, even the so-called “Concerned Relatives” are almost as much to blame as the people they ultimately failed to save: “by their words and action, they helped create the conditions” for the mass suicide; “their hysteria goaded [the People’s Temple] toward extinction” (156).

But the blame is ultimately spread much further still. Naipaul has little truck for the notion that Jonestown is a case of utopian idealism that somewhere went wrong. He finds fault with the idealism in the first place, which “had already gone wrong [. . .] eaten up with inner decay” (297). Hence the seeds of Jonestown’s destruction are already found in San Francisco’s “New Age Exposition,” Los Angeles hedonism, Berkeley’s student radicalism, and Oakland’s Black Panthers. California, that glittering, sun-drenched mirage, turns out to be the setting for wholesale “intellectual and spiritual collapse” (208), a place where “the intellect was dead and its place taken by a set of shared pathological obsessions” (211). Moreover, Naipaul wants us to take the metaphor of sickness seriously: “ideas had indeed become viruses” (211); “they were a disease you caught; a contamination of the intellect” (196).

California, however, is simply the concentration of a set of obsessions and pathologies that are distinctively American, a “laboratory” (199) in which all that is wrong with the country comes to the surface: “America’s wilder dreams have always rolled to the Far West. Fantasies flourish best in a warm, sensual climate” (202). And so it was with Jim Jones and his followers. It was not just that they had been infected by some Californian contagion; they had brought the madness with them in their trek (which Naipaul repeatedly calls a “hegira”) from Indiana and the Middle West. For everything “was already in place when Jones left Indianapolis for the Redwood Valley. Those who were received into its inner circles knowingly recruited themselves into corruption” (249).

It gets worse. There’s a reason why Naipaul subtitles his book “A New World Tragedy”: he sees Jonestown as an indictment of the Americas as a whole. This is no simple anti-Americanism in which the vices of the dominant are mocked or denounced. If anything, it is the dominated, and particularly the blacks who figured so strongly in Jones’s multiracial vision, who are to blame. Was it not Huey Newton who came up with the notion of “revolutionary suicide”? Had not “the basic groundwork [for Jones’s fatal paranoia] been done by his black radical precursors” (288)? What the People’s Temple suffered from, in the end, was “an intolerably aggravated racial consciousness. [. . .] The Temple was the disease it claimed to be fighting. In that lay its most hopeless corruption” (249).

Hence the appropriateness of the Guyanese setting for the final denouement. Naipaul portrays Guyana as a sort of Jonestown in macrocosm, ruled over by a paranoid leader (Forbes Burnham), in thrall to ideologies of black consciousness and socialist cooperation (a “Cooperative Socialist Republic”), suspicious of visitors who are subjected to surveillance and vacuous propaganda. Guyana, like the People’s Temple, is a place of “degeneracy,” of “moral decay” (105), of “a kind of universal mental retardation” (31). Or perhaps not quite universal: Naipaul describes going to a party in Georgetown where his host’s enervated young English wife dances with him and whispers in his ear “Take me away with you! You must take me way from here! [. . .] Every night I dream it’s my turn to drink the poison” (111). Coming from Trinidad, it is as though Naipaul is a “concerned relative” aghast at what he repeatedly terms the “cultural and intellectual regression” born of “the vocabulary of resentment and racial self-assertion” (26).

The figure to whom Naipaul ultimately resorts to understand Guyana (and so by extension Jonestown) is, perhaps unsurprisingly, that of the first black post-independence leader in the Americas: “In the Caribbean, only Haiti could furnish parallels to this almost complete subversion of government: King Christophe had been reborn” (39).

Finally, however, it would be worth putting to Naipaul the same question that he implicitly puts to the concerned relatives of Jonestown. Is not his own description of the postcolonial Americas, with the “riffraff” (27) like “animals” (17) in the grip of nefarious ideologies of racial and cultural empowerment amidst a “jungly nightmare” (13) . . . is all this not a little hysterical? Indeed, has not Naipaul rather lost touch of his much-prized “logic and all that bullshit” in his total negativity towards the Americas and any possible dream of liberation or social justice?


There is the interior of Guyana, explored by Evelyn Waugh, and then there is the coastal strip that stretches from the capital, Georgetown, to the Suriname border. The former is, even now, a vast swathe of jungle and savannah thinly populated by indigenous groups and the occasional ranch. There is some logging, some mineral and gold extraction, and increasing amounts of ecotourism, but essentially it is wilderness with just the one unmade road leading to Lethem and the Brazilian border.

The coast, however, has a reasonably well-made road to Corriverton and Moleson Creek in the East, and even a brand-new bridge spanning the Berbice river that means that you can now drive the whole way without taking a ferry. Moreover, strung out along the road are an endless succession of small settlements; indeed, it might be better to say that the entire road is one long, thin, ribbony settlement that stretches for well over a hundred miles.

Taxis and minibuses zip along the road at surprising speed, though drivers have always to be alert to avoid potholes, stray dogs, cows, or other livestock. Guyana is an untidy country (the contrast with neighbouring Suriname is noticeable) and nothing quite stays in its place. The route is also marked, especially in the straggling suburbs of Georgetown, by a profusion of mosques and temples, a reminder that up to two thirds of the population (the highest proportion in the Caribbean) is of East Indian descent.

Indeed, the country’s politics (and to some extent also its culture) are inflected by a simmering tension between black and East Indian that has to be almost unique (though perhaps nearby Trinidad is somewhat similar). Political parties are organized on racial lines and, during election periods at least, exacerbate the differences between the two communities to the point of encouraging sporadic intercommunal violence. At other times the tension is much more muted, though apparently when the Indian cricket team comes to town they are not without supporters among the local South Asian population even though some of the most prominent current West Indies players (such as Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan) are also of East Indian origin.

It is unique because I can’t think of another example (though I’m willing to be corrected) of a postcolonial society so structured by a tension not between colonizer and colonized but between two groups imported into the colonial situation by the colonizers–the blacks as slaves, and the East Indians as indentured labor. Of course, colonialism and more generally capital has often thrived on playing off the differences between immigrant groups, such as between the Italians and Irish in the Northeastern United States. But here, with the indigenous a tiny minority in the interior and the whites effectively absent, this has now become the primary political and social difference.

Guyana wants to present itself as a model multicultural postcolonial society. Its capital features an “Umana Yana,” a huge indigenous hut built for the 1972 Non-Aligned Foreign Ministers Conference, as well as a monument to the Non-Aligned Movement itself, with busts of its founders Nasser, Nkrumah, Nehru, and Tito. No doubt for the most part the messy, sprawling community that stretches along the coastal road is a good instance of everyday cooperation and exuberant hybridization between the various communities that make up the country. But there are plenty of reminders that colonialism’s “divide and rule” policies run deep, even once the rulers have packed up and gone home.