“Las cosas que perdimos en el fuego”

Cross-posted to Virtual Koerner’s.

enriquez_last-cosas-que-perdimosFemininity is all too often defined by the image (and so by the male gaze). Women are reduced to appearance, and judged in terms of the extent to which they measure up to some mythical ideal. Mariana Enríquez’s short story, “Las cosas que perdimos en el fuego” (“Things We Lost in the Fire”), presents a surreal and disturbing counter-mythology that explores what happens when that image is subject to attack, not least by women themselves.

It all starts with a woman who is compelled to support herself by begging on the Buenos Aires subway, after a jealous husband inflicts on her horrific burns that destroy her arms and face, leaving her with only one eye and a slit for a mouth, her lips burnt off. As she seeks contributions from subway passengers, she tells her story: that her husband threw alcohol on her face while she was asleep, setting her alight to “ruin” her, so she wouldn’t belong to anybody else. In the hospital, when everyone expected her to die and she couldn’t speak for herself, he said that she had done this to herself, a tragic accident after a fight. Now that she has recovered her voice, the woman on the subway reclaims her narrative and names the perpetrator. She knows, however, that she will never recover her appearance; her image was lost in the fire.

But perhaps it doesn’t all start there. As another character comments later, referring to a history of witch-hunts but also much more, “They’ve always burned women, they’ve been burning us for four centuries!” No doubt this is why the woman on the subway’s story starts to resonate so much with others.

First, it inspires copy-cat crimes: a model, who seems truly to incarnate that idealized image of femininity, is burnt by her footballer boyfriend in much the same way that the woman on the subway had been attacked. And he, too, blames her for what happened. As if it is only in death (the model does not survive her injuries) that women are granted agency, much like the famous if perhaps apocryphal witch-trials by water, in which only the drowned were presumed innocent.

Then, as Enríquez’s story progresses, small groups of Argentine women start to reclaim their agency while still alive, albeit by anticipating the torture inflicted on them by men. They begin to set light to themselves. Some do so alone, perhaps intending suicide. But, in the face of official disapproval, others form shadowy networks of “Burning Women” to aid and abet ritual ceremonies of self-immolation, complete with clandestine hospitals to ensure recovery thereafter. Because the point is to survive, and to put that survival on display. As one woman puts it: “They have always burned us. Now we are burning ourselves. But we’re not going to die: we’re going to flaunt our scars.”

The notion here is a kind of immunization: if women burn themselves, then they also rid themselves of the idealized image, the fetish that justifies men burning them. Moreover, they show that they cannot be reduced to appearances, albeit by paradoxically revelling in the way in which their new, “monstrous” appearance repels the male gaze. As the woman from the subway puts it, “Men are going to have to get used to us. Soon most women are going to look like me, if they don’t die. And wouldn’t that be nice? A new kind of beauty.” Laying claim to deformity, they challenge the gendered scopic regime of representation and power.

Yet this sacrificial logic is disturbing, and not only to men. The story is told from the perspective of a young woman, Silvina, whose mother is one of the first to throw herself into the campaign. It ends as she overhears her mother and a friend talking about her as a possible candidate for a burning: “Silvinita, oh, when Silvina burned it would be beautiful, she’d be a true flower of fire.” Here, the vision is (almost literally) of the Revolution eating its children, of a new image that ends up as horrific and coercive as the old one. The “ideal world of men and monsters” is no more (or perhaps no less) ideal than our own.

There are obvious resonances here with debates over the tactics of militant groups during Argentina’s Dirty War. There is also an explicit comparison to anorexia, which is also as much a self-destructive as a subversive mode of (re)claiming female agency. Perhaps, too, we might think of our contemporary immunological paradigm, and the price we are called upon to pay to confront all manner of diseases (metaphorical and otherwise). Fire both purifies and corrupts. Without nostalgia, and without any easy judgements, Enríquez compels us to think in new ways about what gets lost when we turn the tools that oppress us into weapons for liberation.

The People of Paper

plascencia_people-of-paperSalvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper portrays the revolt of its characters (people, literally, of paper) against the author who has created them. The author, who himself takes on the character of an (almost) all-seeing “Saturn” is described as a “tyrant, commanding the story where he wants it to go. That is why they fight against him, why they hide under lead [which apparently protects the characters from his authorial gaze] and try to push him to the margins” (228). And yet at the point at which Saturn actually comes into view, he seems to be about as tyrannous as the Wizard of Oz after Toto opens up a curtain in the Emerald Palace to reveal merely a middle-aged “humbug” and “a very bad wizard.” In Plascencia’s novel it is a carnation-picker by the name of Smiley who “saw[s] through the layers of newspaper and glue” that protect Saturn’s house and comes across an author who is “no longer in control. [. . .] I found him asleep, sprawled and naked, laying on his stomach, [. . .] the linens and towels unfolded and dirty, books stacked in badly planned towers [. . .]. And paper, unbound and scattered everywhere” (103-4). Unlike the other characters, Smiley had been less keen to enlist in the war against his creator, wondering “Could he not be protecting us?” (95). Once exposed, however, it appears that the mighty Saturn can scarcely look after himself, let alone anyone else.

Yet the real disappointment in Smiley’s encounter with Saturn is the discovery that not only is he neither threatening nor protecting his characters; it seems he is unable even to keep track of them all. “Smiley?” he asks bewilderedly. And perceiving the dismay that this failure to recognize his own creation engenders, he goes on to explain that “there are many characters, plots, and devices, and in the jumble of things sometimes minor characters are forgotten, even by the author” (105). Saturn/Plascencia has been caught up in his own plot, which runs parallel to that of the carnation pickers, and involves a woman who has left him for another man, a woman to whom the novel is apparently dedicated (“To Liz, who taught me that we are all of paper”), and who has her own concerns about what its author is writing: “You need to remember that I exist beyond the pages of this book. [. . .] Sal, if you love me, please leave me out of this story. Start this book over, without me” (138). Plascencia seems to be besieged on all sides: both by the characters that he has imagined, who live and die (and in at least one case are swiftly resurrected) as a function of this story that he has dreamed up; and also by other characters that are all too real, over whom he has no control, and against whom the best he can manage is rather petty revenge, for instance by scratching out the name of Liz’s new lover whenever it appears. Though he does indeed start the book over, as a new title page appears in the wake of Liz’s protests, with the dedication merely “Para mi papa, mama, y hermana” (143; this is after all a Chicano text that is also about border-crossings as well as being a parody of urban gang life), yet he tries to have it both ways, as the original dedication still stands. Liz is, and is not, the novel’s dedicatee. No wonder Saturn has trouble keeping tabs on everything.

Saturn’s problem is to some extent also the reader’s. There is a lot going on in this novel: many plots and sub-plots and indeed innumerable minor characters, including a Merced, a Little Merced, and a Merced de Papel, as well as carnation pickers, Burn Collectors, mechanics, mechanical tortoises, a Mexican wrestler, a beekeeper, a Cardinal, a curandero, a “Baby Nostradamus” whose thoughts are inscrutably hidden by blocks of ink, Rita Hayworth, and even another ex-girlfriend for Saturn/Plascencia. And ultimately perhaps we suffer the same fate as Saturn as he is depicted by his creation, Smiley: we find it hard to care too much about any of them. Least of all, Saturn himself, who comes off as at best a little pathetic, and at worst self-obsessed, spoiled, sexist, and vindictive. (“Cunt” is his one-word retort to Liz’s plea to leave her out of it [139].)

Of course, especially in a self-reflexive and metafictional text such as this one, Plascencia’s defence would be that his unlikeable self-portrait in the novel is indeed precisely that: a portrait, an unreliable representation, a performance, a mask whereby we come to see that “Plascencia” the author is as fictive a character as Smiley or Little Merced. We have no reason to believe that “Liz” actually exists (in any case, it is Plascencia who has come up with the lines he ascribes to her), and so no basis to credit the “sadness” that we are told “circulate[s] through Saturn, clogging capillaries and inflaming his lymph nodes” (242). The author is as much a creature of paper as any of his creations, and as such in fact has no capillaries or lymph nodes. But this recognition hardly prompts us to care any more. Indeed, quite the opposite. And however much the novel reminds us that paper can cut, and that people of paper can wound and affect us equally if not more than “real” people can, the fact that this book illustrates that point with descriptions of men whose tongues are lacerated thanks to cunnilingus with the origami woman Merced de Papel leaves me, at least, unmoved.

Lost Children Archive I

lost-children-archiveHow to write about the migrant experience today? More particularly, how to write about the current crisis at the US/Mexico border? The multiple forms of violence compelling continued migration north, especially from Central America; the deliberate collapse of the asylum system and the rule of law; the separation of children from families amid the institution of a system of what are effectively concentration camps operated by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. As the Covid-19 pandemic grips us, these stories may be fading from consciousness, but immigration to the USA has long been denounced via the rhetoric of disease and contamination. And Trump is fond of referring to immigrants and people of color in terms of “infestation”, just as he wants to insist that Covid-19, “the Chinese virus,” comes from beyond US borders.

Earlier this year, this question of who and how to write about migration and the borderlands flared into a brief but intense controversy around Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt, a novel that was harshly criticized on the grounds that it commodified and exoticized migrant trauma for an Anglo audience. One text repeatedly put forward by that book’s critics as offering a better approach to representing the border crisis and its ramifications was Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, which in fact puts the problem at center stage.

Luiselli’s novel is in some ways the inverse to Cummins’s. Though its narrative focuses similarly on a mother and her child, a fractured family making its way to the border, here the journey starts in the north, rather than the south, and the fracture is psychological or affective, rather than the very literal rupture with which American Dirt spectacularly opens. Here the family are (so far, at least) physically together: a husband and wife, with a child each that they bring from previous relationships. And together they are embarked on a trip from New York to the US Southwest. But whether they will remain together once the trip is over is uncertain, perhaps unlikely. Though the parents are both engaged in recording sounds (as either documentarians or documentarists; the difference seems both ineffable and yet somehow absolute), each has their own project, their own goal in mind. He is in search of the traces of the last Native Americans to surrender to the US state, the Apache band led by the semi-mythical Geronimo. She has taken on a vaguely journalistic mission to investigate the plight of children detained on the border, specifically the two children of a woman with whose legal case she has become involved. And however much the narrator (the first half of the novel is written almost entirely from the mother’s point of view) can reflect on the ways in which these two obsessions overlap, interact, and resonate with each other, she and her husband are barely able to communicate except indirectly, as they try to keep their two young children, aged ten and five, amused and more or less oblivious of the cracks opening up in the cramped atmosphere of the family car. At the same time, she also increasingly realizes that the children, too, are in many ways “strangers, especially when we add them together” (74). Indeed, the entire novel is a meditation on the many possible forms of alienation, the ways in which “the other can suddenly become a stranger” (21), as even those with whom we are most intimately connected become alien to us.

The husband seems to be much more sure of himself and what he is doing, though this may be a consequence of the fact that we have much less access to whatever thoughts and concerns may be preoccupying him. He tells the kids stories about the Apache, confidently if not necessarily reliably (“I don’t know if what my husband is telling them is true” [74]). When they stop somewhere, as they often do, he gets out his recording equipment to capture a soundscape of ambient noise, “collect[ing] sounds that are usually not noticed [. . .]. Maybe the rain falling on this tin roof, some birds if we can, or maybe just insects buzzing” (96). At other times, the four of them listen to the news on the radio, to music, or to audiobooks, notably William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. But for all the assurance with which these narratives are presented, his wife notes that the children “combine the stories, confuse them. They come up with possible endings and counterfactual histories” (75). And, much more (apparently) than her husband, she is led to meditate therefore on the uncertain fate of any story, including (it is implied) the one that is told by Lost Children Archive itself.

When the mother tells us of her worries about her own project, these are surely then indications of concerns about any attempt, including Luiselli’s own, to have some kind of social impact through art. As the narrator says: “How can a radio documentary be useful in helping more undocumented children find asylum?” This she terms a “political concern.” But she goes on, as the narration continues in something like stream of consciousness, to itemize other problems with what we could “politically-committed” art, including the “Aesthetic problem: On the other hand, why should a sound piece, or any other form of storytelling, for that matter, be a means to a specific end? I should know by now that instrumentalism, applied to any art form, is a way of guaranteeing really shitty results.” This then leads her to consider the perhaps even more significant

Ethical problem: And why would I even think that I can or should make art with someone else’s suffering? [. . .] Constant concerns: Cultural appropriation, pissing all over someone else’s toilet seat, who am I to tell this story, micromanaging identity politics, heavy-handedness, am I too angry [. . .]. (79)

Luiselli’s novel steadfastly keeps these issues in view, as if by raising them (and not simply confining them to an “Author’s Note” tacked on at the end, as does Cummins) she may not quite ward them off, but at least warn the reader and invite us to think about our own complicity in the kinds of stories that are told about migration and their effects on others (and surely also ourselves). Hence too, no doubt, the obliqueness of Luiselli’s portrayal of the refugee crisis: we are halfway through what is not a short book, and still a long way from the border.

But we already realize that the borderlands stretch a long way. Space and time in this novel both expand and contract. Just as the narrator’s husband is convinced that the echoes of the nineteenth-century history can be almost materially registered by his recording devices, so Luiselli suggests that the injustice and violence of asylum and immigration policy can and should resonate far beyond their specific geographical limits. As we have been forcefully reminded of the current pandemic: this affects us all.

El mundo es ancho y ajeno II


The second half of Ciro Alegría’s El mundo es ancho y ajeno is much more fragmented and dislocated than the first. This is evident even on a formal level: each chapter is shorter; we jump between storylines, often never to return; there are also temporal leaps and breathless attempts to catch up with the plot. At times, especially towards the end, it even feels as though the novel is simply running out of steam. After so much effort spent lyrically evoking the rhythms of communal life in the Andes, once the community breaks up and many of its inhabitants disperse to the four corners of Peru, Alegría only has time and energy for quick vignettes, snapshots of the indigenous people’s precarious destinies once they have been forced off their ancestral lands. Some of the former comuneros find themselves elsewhere in the Andes, either on other haciendas or in the mines; others become involved in the hard and exploitative work of harvesting coca in the foothills or rubber in the rainforest. And when the book turns to update us on the whereabouts of prodigal son Benito Castro, we get a sense of life in the coastal capital and its port, Callao, and then of Castro’s subsequent military career. But this last narrative is especially truncated: we gallop through half a dozen years of military service in two pages (489-90). It is as though a clock were ticking, faster and faster, counting down breathlessly to an apocalyptic final dénouement. The old order is ending, and we barely have time to witness its final destruction, as on the novel’s final page the state brutally represses a short-lived insurrection from Rumi’s former inhabitants.

In other words, it is as though the form of the novel itself were no longer able to contain or adequately portray its ostensible subject. In fact, perhaps it never was able to do so. If El mundo es ancho y ajeno is really, as a young Mario Vargas Llosa argued eloquently shortly after Alegría’s death in 1967, Peru’s belated foundational novel, this is a foundation that is also in some sense the end of the line. It is impossible, this book’s hurried and fragmentary second half suggests, to write the national allegory of a nation whose abiding principles are the refusal to admit that half its citizens are subjects, and the brutal curtailment of any narratives they might try to construct. Or rather, the only possible story to be told, then, is the tale of indigenous destruction from the point of view of those responsible for it. The indigenista project, exemplified by Alegría himself, of telling that tale (or any other) from the other side, is doomed from the outset.

So for all the apparent realism of Alegría’s style (Vargas Llosa describes the novel as “an epic history, told with impressionistic language and strictly realist setting: an American synthesis of Victor Hugo and Zola”), it is worth attending also to the book’s metafictional moments, which are relatively few and far between but striking when they come up. Very early on, for instance, a self-reflexive narrative voice intervenes into a description of Rumi’s mayor Rosendo Maqui and his relationship with his adoptive son, curtailing and forestalling further explanation: “We, who have broader responsibilities than Maqui does, although they are undoubtedly less important, will explain what has to be explained in due time. For the moment we do not think it opportune to clarify anything…” (34). It is many hundreds of pages later before the narrative returns to the issue, and it does so through a rather strange denial of narratorial agency, with the argument that the reader should now be able to put two and two together: “We, for our part, should recall that we postponed any explanation of the mayor’s attitude towards Benito regarding his exile from the community. Now, having seen their lives over many years, we believe the matter to be clarified by the facts themselves in all their ramifications and origins” (450). So the narrator interjects, but only so as to claim that his role is somehow superfluous. It is as though the novel were marking his voice, pointing to the narrator’s existence as a standpoint outside and beyond the indigenous community, but at the same time trying to cancel it out, to suggest that here the narrative speaks for itself.

There is a similar anxiety and ambivalence at another point that is also surely self-reflexive, a passage that features three benevolent outsiders, collectively described as “odd dandies.” In fact, despite the strangeness of their manners and dress, they are serranos (highlanders) who have spent a long time on the coast and have now returned in search of local colour (to “cazar paisajes” [480]). For all three are in the business of representation, if in different ways: they are a folklorist, a writer, and a painter. We meet them amid festivities celebrated in the provincial capital. Two former Rumi inhabitants are also at the festival, and they, too, are identified in terms of their roles as cultural producers: Amadeo Illas is a storyteller, and Demetrio Sumallacta, a flautist. All this almost sounds like the set-up for a joke–”A folklorist, a writer, and a painter meet a storyteller and a flautist in a bar”–but what it leads to instead is some awkward philosophizing about the role of art and its relationship to social justice. It is hard to tell the extent to which this awkwardness is part of Alegría’s satire of these dandy do-gooders, and how much it is inherent in the novelist’s own uncertainties and faltering self-expression. It is as though he were trying to suggest a framework within which to read his novel, but at the same time distancing himself from it.

The discussion is prompted by a long tale, told by Illas, about a fox who is (literally) outfoxed by a rabbit. The fox wants to eat the rabbit, but time and again he is forced to endure one humiliation after another thanks to his prey’s quick-witted trickery. At the end, the fox is convinced that the rabbit is dead, and therefore that somehow he has triumphed, but in fact the rabbit has simply managed to escape the predator’s notice. The fox cannot even recognize him when he sees him. The three dandies listen intently to this telling and offer their interpretations: “I’d dare claim that it’s symbolic,” says one, “and that in it the fox represents the overseer, and the rabbit, the Indian. And so the Indian gains his revenge, in literary form at least.” Listening to all this, the flautist, Demetrio, is bemused. “He didn’t know if that’s what the story represented, but, really, he liked the fact that for once the poor rabbit defeated the cunning and arrogant fox.” (480). And yet, in El mundo es ancho y ajeno it is the Indian who is at every turn outwitted where he is not outgunned. So perhaps this is a book that accords more with the view of the painter, who quotes the nineteenth-century Ecuadorian essayist Juan Montalvo: “If I were to write a book about the Indian, it would make America weep” (481). If an indigenist novel cannot affirm the triumph of indigenous culture (in literary form at least), it should perhaps dedicate itself to denunciation via a claim on the reader’s affects and emotions. In any case, the writer chips in, “I say that culture cannot be detached from an operative conception of justice” (483). Listening to all this, half-drunk, the flautist Demetrio is still not sure what to say. But asked to play a tune, he gives them a song about a piece of chaff waiting for the rain, much to the delight of his listeners: “That straw is hard and long-suffering like the campesino, with whom the comparison is apt,” says the writer (484).

The dandies are well-intentioned. Whatever else he thinks, Demetrio is impressed that they speak well of the indigenous, and listening to them talk of “justice” and “mankind” alongside “Indian” makes his “heart warm” (485). But they are also condescending and high-faluting, and ultimately a little useless and pathetic. Daring us to identify him with these figures, Alegría seems to recognize that their discussion does not exactly provide the basis for a literature that would denounce and take revenge on the ongoing sufferings of Peru’s indigenous communities, just as the novel was already perhaps a form unfit for the purpose of representing Peru to itself. But for the time being, it was the best he had.

Days of Hope I

André Malraux

Hope is at best an ambivalent sentiment: it both resists and recognizes doubt. “Hope springs eternal,” but we “hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” It is also strangely passive: when we hope something happens (or that it doesn’t), we are acknowledging that it is somehow beyond our control. When we hope, we lay ourselves open to circumstance and fate. So hope is both resilient and fatalistic: hope against hope.

Something of this ambivalence can certainly be seen in André Malraux’s Spanish Civil War novel, L’espoir (translated variously as Man’s Hope or Days of Hope). On the one hand, the book tracks the first few months of the war, before factional infighting had destroyed a Revolution whose “driving force,” one of Malraux’s characters tells us, “is–hope” (37). On the other hand, even at this early stage the Republic’s weaknesses are clear and it often seems as though hope is all its adherents have, and even that is “gasping to survive, like a man who is being throttled” (44). It’s all too easy for an apparent cause for optimism to be revealed as nothing more than a “charitable lie” (93). Malraux’s characters are therefore torn between a self-defeating realism and a hope they know (not so very) deep down to be impossible and self-deluding. Hence the revolutionary spirit is described as a “Apocalypse of fraternity” (100). It embodies all the virtues of human sociability and commonality, but for that very reason it is doomed: “the apocalyptic mood clamours for everything right away. [. . . But] it’s in the very nature of an Apocalypse to have no future. . . . Even when it professes to have one” (102).

Hope alone, then, is insufficient, not least because this (Malraux suggests) is a new kind of war: “a war of mechanized equipment”; and yet the Republicans are “running it as if noble emotions were all that mattered!” (98). But Malraux doesn’t allow this question to be fully settled. Instead, his characters continuously argue (at times, bicker) about the role of technology, organization, and efficiency in determining the war’s outcome. For the intellectual, Garcia, for instance the problem is that the Revolutionaries are taking the Russian Revolution as their model, forgetting that this was not so much “the first revolution of the twentieth century” as “the last of the nineteenth. The Czarists had neither tanks nor ‘planes; the revolutionaries used barricades. [. . .] Today Spain is littered with barricades–to resist Franco’s warplanes” (99). Later he points out that, whatever bravery the disorganized Republican militias may demonstrated, “mass courage in the field [. . .] can’t stand up against ‘planes and machine guns” (176). And as for the Republicans’ ragtag airforce, endlessly waiting for Russian planes that never come (while Hitler and Mussolini ensure that Franco is endlessly supplied), as Garcia says to the airman Magnin: “I doubt if you expect to keep your Flight up to the mark on a basis of mere fraternity” (102). For Garcia, “this would be a technicians’ war” (98).

By contrast, however, other voices vouch for fraternity, courage, and hope, even in the cause of a losing side–and even, indeed, if they ensure that the cause itself is lost. The anarchist Negus, for instance, declares that “it’s courage gets things done. Cut the crap!” (171). And from a rather different perspective, Hernandez, a career army officer who refuses to join Franco’s mutiny, declares that “a world without hope is . . . suffocating. Or else, a purely physical world” (195). Speaking of the militia, who too often resemble a disorganized and ineffective rabble, he says that “if nothing in you responds to the hope that animate them, well then, go to France, there’s nothing for you to do here” (196). And to Garcia, Hernandez asks “What’s the point of a revolution if it isn’t to make men better?” and argues that it can be brought about by “the most humane element of humanity.” (180). To which Garcia responds that “Moral ‘uplift’ and magnanimity are matters for the individual, with which the revolution has no direct concern; far from it!” (183). But even Garcia concedes the dangers involved: that “a popular movement, or a revolution, or even a rebellion, can hold on to its victory only by methods directly opposed to those which gave it victory” (102). For to lose hope it to give in to cynicism, and to put one’s faith in technology is to put efficiency and effectiveness on a pedestal, and ultimately you are a hair’s breadth away from fascism, at least as it is defined here: “The cynical action plus a taste for action makes man a fascist, or a potential fascist–unless there’s loyalty behind him” (143).

There is, however, perhaps a third option, beyond this opposition between dignified humanism on the one hand and technocratic pragmatism on the other. For the technology that does indeed pervade everything in the novel (almost always, for instance, there is a radio on somewhere in the background) has effects that are as much aesthetic as military. There are frequent comparisons with the movie industry, for instance: Madrid is described as “an enormous film studio” (36); an in Toledo “the fierce light of a film studio played on ruins like the wreckage of a temple of the East” (161); the aviator Scali is compared to “an American film comedian” (118); Hernandez’s friend Moreno’s face is described in terms of its “screen-star symmetry” (195). And at the very end of the first part of the novel, when Hernandez is facing a fascist firing squad, he thinks of it as some kind of grotesque cinematic scene: “yes, all was ready for the camera” (220).

All of which suggests that the true stakes of the war (and the revolution) may not be so much moral or political as in the realm of representation. Hence, listening to “the strident triumph of fraternal unity” as a parade of troops goes by, the American journalist Slade comments that “There’s a spark of poetry [. . .] in every man, and one day he has to come out with it” (37). His friend, Lopez, replies that “we’ve here right now a mob of painters” and argues the need for a revolutionary art or “style” that’s “got to be something definite, not a vague abstraction like ‘the masses’” (38). “One day,” he continues, “that new style of ours will catch on in the whole of Spain, just as the cathedral style spread over Europe, and their painters have given Mexico a revolutionary fresco style” (40). And so perhaps this is where Malraux’s hope is invested: the Republicans may indeed lose the war, and the Revolution may indeed be doomed (may have to be doomed for it not to become itself simply the mirror image of the fascism that opposes it), but somehow an aesthetic style may survive these losses, and take hold not only in Spain but also far beyond.

See also: Days of Hope II; Spanish Civil War novels.

The Coming Insurrection

The Coming Insurrection

“The sphere of political representation has come to a close,” announce the Invisible Committee early on in their short book The Coming Insurrection. All we can expect from the political parties is empty posturing, lifeless formulae of statistical correlation. “From left to right it’s the same nothingness striking the pose of an emperor or savior, the same sales assistants adjusting their discourse according to the findings of the latest surveys” (23). Against such empty theatrics, the book argues instead for the virtues of obscurity and opacity, for “turning the anonymity to which we’ve been relegated to our advantage” (113). “Sabotage every representative authority,” the book advises, not least also “the unions and the entire micro-bureaucracy whose job it is to control the struggle” (121). Against the politics of recognition (“from whom do we seek recognition?” it asks [113]), The Coming Insurrection promotes the “joy” of “being nobody” (114).

No doubt this is why its authors choose to remain invisible, though the French domestic security services have alleged that they are in some way connected to the so-called “Tarnac Nine.” Vice Magazine’s ”Vive Le Tarnac Nine” is a good account both of the tiny village of Tarnac in Central France, and of the small group that briefly made it famous: “young people with a history as squatters and anarchist activists who had left the bustling Parisian metropolis to go and live in a forsaken village in mountains that had been, historically, a site of guerrilla warfare.” When, in late 2008, police discovered an attempt to interfere with the high-speed railway lines that pass nearby, nine of these dissidents (who also happened to run the village shop and bar) were rounded up and put on trial for supposed terrorist offences. The Coming Insurrection was presented in court as exhibit A for the prosecution. All of which ensured, of course, that these nobodies became more like somebodies while the book itself was soon more visible than ever.

The notion that this is some kind of terrorist handbook, however, is frankly silly. It’s much more interesting–and serious–than that. It’s unabashedly Communist (“All power to the communes!” it ends [133]), but not conventionally Marxist, though it does endeavour to revive the concept of political economy. Its critique of capitalism has less to do with any concept of exploitation that with the forms of subjectivity that the labour relation engenders. For production today is not so much a matter of the creation of commodities for the market, than it is concerned with the construction of the self, as both producer and consumer: “Producing oneself is becoming the dominant occupation of a society where production no longer has an object” (49). What we sell is “oneself rather than one’s labor power, to be remunerated not for what one does but for what one is, for our exquisite mastery of social codes” (50). This is the truth of “human capital,” the outcome of a never-ending manufacturing process, which occupies our so-called leisure time as much as our work time, in which “you are yourself a little business, your own boss, your own product” (51). In short, the problem of representation is not merely a question of political theatre, but also of everyday life as we are endlessly enjoined to polish our CVs, our social media profiles, and make ourselves adaptable, employable. We are being consumed, or rather emptied out, by our own self-representations. Those who can’t make it–or, more precisely, those who cannot make themselves–are left on the scrapheap. This is capitalism’s own mechanism of terror, by which “on the one hand, ghosts are brought to life, and on the other, the living are left to die. This is the properly political function of the contemporary production apparatus” (51).

What then is to be done? Form communes, of course. “Communes come into being when people find each other, get on with each other, and decide on a common path” (101). This also involves an exodus from the regime of the individualized self, but what counts is ultimately what they affirm rather than what they might (somewhat incidentally) negate. What matters and what defines a commune is “the density of the ties at [its] core” (102). And this in turn is what the book, perhaps surprisingly, describes in terms of a form of truth, for “there’s a truth beneath every gesture, every practice, every relationship, and every situation. [. . .] An isolated being who holds fast to a truth will inevitably meet others like her. In fact, every insurrectional process starts from a truth that we refuse to give up” (97-98). In contrast, then, to a revolutionary tradition that tends to stress sacrifice, here it is tenacity that is the ultimate virtue. And while both sacrifice and tenacity may be forms of selflessness, here that is because what is refused is the imposition of a self (or an injunction to self-fashioning) that takes us away from a truth that is always impersonal, shared, held in common.

This discourse of truth may seem strangely staid, perhaps even quasi-religious (fundamentalist?). It’s not what we usually expect of contemporary French philosophy–and interestingly, The Coming Insurrection also features a short but sharp critique of “postmodernist thinkers” for promoting a “total absence of certitude.” “Western imperialism,” we’re told, “is the imperialism of relativism, of the ‘It all depends on your point of view’” (92). At which point the danger is that the Invisible Committee, like denizens of hippie communes in the 1960s, fall into the celebration of an exotic and largely imaginary version of non-Western certitudes, perhaps centered around a localist relation to the Earth or Nature. But the truths affirmed here are always relationships rather than essences, and however much the book argues for blocking the flows that define the capitalist metropolis (hence allegedly the link between this book and the sabotage of the French railway network) it has little time for “local slowness and rootedness” (109). A commune is not a withdrawal or retreat (a “return to the land,” say); it involves taking up arms, if silently and invisibly, such that “the expansive movement of commune formation should surreptitiously overtake the movement of the metropolis” (109).

The Invisible Committee’s subsequent publication, To Our Friends, opens with the declaration that “The insurrections have come, finally.” And indeed it’s true that the years following the 2007 appearance of The Coming Insurrection have seen not only the Arab Spring but also the rise of movements such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. But are these constituted by communes as envisaged here? Too often–not unlike Corbyn in the UK, as well as Sanders and even Trump in the USA–what they claim is in fact to reinvigorate political representation, to make hegemony fit for purpose once more. As such, we are still some way from this book’s “dream of an age that is equal to our passions” (84).

Live Souls

The Spanish Civil War is edging towards the far horizon of living memory. There are no more than a dozen veterans still alive. They include Fernando Macarro Castillo, better known as Marcos Ana, a poet who signed up with the Republican Army and later spent twenty-three years in one of Franco’s jails. He is now 96 years old. And José María Gárate Córdoba, who fought on the Nationalist side and went on to be a military historian. He is 97. Or the Englishman Stanley Hilton (now living in rural Australia) who, at nineteen, jumped ship in Alicante and joined the International Brigades. He, too, is 97 years old. No doubt there are others who were only children at the time, indelibly marked by the first “total war” to be fought on European soil, in which civilians were directly targeted as in the infamous bombing of Guernica. But there cannot be many left. Next year there will be fewer. Very soon there will be none. And then the conflict will have passed fully into history.

Live Souls

But history has a way of catching up with us. Live Souls (Ronsdale Press, 2015), a collection of photographs (plus brief memoir) by Alec Wainman, who served in Spain as a volunteer ambulance driver and interpreter, is a reminder that the past is nearer than we think, the repercussions of this internal conflict broader than we might imagine. For the struggle between Franco’s insurgent Nationalists and Spain’s legitimate Republican government was always an international affair, as the former were enthusiastically backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Mexico and the USSR weighed in for the latter, and the rest of the world watched on and waxed sanctimonious. In some ways, the war of 1936 to 1939 was a dry run for the subsequent World War Two, as what would become the Axis powers tried out novel tactics of aerial bombardment and mass terror, while the true stakes of Allied anti-fascism were laid bare: the UK and France (among others) chose not to intervene where they felt their national interests were not at stake. In frustration and anger, thousands of (mostly) young men such as the Anglo-Canadian Wainman, fresh out of a Modern Languages degree at Oxford, travelled to Spain to help in any way they could, believing that the Republican cause transcended national boundaries.

But the global impact of the Spanish Civil War is not measured in geopolitics alone. The Republic’s defeat prompted a diasporic exodus of its adherents: throughout Europe but also to many countries of Latin America. And those who had fought alongside them also ended up at all four corners of the world: Stanley Hilton in a remote town on the border between Victoria and New South Wales, and Wainman on what must have seemed the equally isolated Canadian Pacific Coast, about as far away from the battlefields of Madrid, Catalonia, and Valencia as one could imagine. Here, in Vancouver, he dedicated himself to teaching Slavic languages and culture at the University of British Columbia, apparently telling few of his friends or colleagues of his experiences back in the heady days of 1937 and 1938. He died in 1989 and his archive of 1600 photographs taken in Spain with a trusty Leica was thought lost until, very recently, his son (who goes by the name of Serge Alternês) tracked them down, salvaged from the home of a retired London publisher. Now available, together for the first time, in this handsome volume, these images chart the tenacious persistence of memory, the resonance of surprisingly intimate encounters that radiates outward from then to now.

With few exceptions, almost all these pictures are portraits. The first, indeed, is the figure of the photographer himself, snapped close-up (a “selfie,” perhaps?) on a Barcelona street car. His head is back, and he looks somewhat warily at the camera lens from behind glasses that reflect the light from the street and so render the photographic subject slightly opaque, reticently fleeing our gaze. Equally, another photograph that features Wainman, in his khaki shorts, leaning on the bonnet of the ambulance he drove, is strangely out of focus and blurred. This is a portraitist who happily effaces his own image and subjectivity in order all the better to let those portrayed fix their own self-representation. On the page facing the picture of Wainman with his ambulance, for instance, is an image of John Cornford, the British Marxist poet whose “Full Moon at Tierz” and “To Margot Heinneman” are classic meldings of politics and romantic elegy. To add to the mythos of doomed romanticism, Cornford famously would go on to be killed in action at twenty-one. But in this picture, he’s perhaps surprisingly smiling, raising his fist in a salute that seems almost comic, self-consciously humorous. Wainman’s portrait opens up a perspective that goes beyond the time-worn cliché.

And so it is throughout the collection. We perpetually get the sense of a curious eye that lets itself be drawn by its surroundings and by the dispositions of those who are facing the camera. In nearly every case, the people we see are aware that they are being seen, and so participate in their self-representation. The cover image is another good example: it shows what appears to be a veteran militiaman, with an ammunition belt over his shoulder, amusedly looking at us with half-closed eyes as he takes a drag of a cigarette, while next to him a younger man, barely out of adolescence, extravagantly strikes a pose with his fist in the air. Behind them, a small crowd cheerily look on, observing this to-and-fro between photographer and his subjects, self-fashioning and its capture on film. The glory of this book is not that it shows us its varied array of combatants, volunteers, nurses, patients, peasants, children, and so on as they actually are, but rather that it allows them to show themselves as they want to be seen, devoid of any particular propagandistic intent.

Hence perhaps the book’s title. The “life” of these live souls comes through in the poses they strike, and in the freedom that the photographer gives them to strike them. If this is a claim to authenticity, it is so in that it is the record of a series of interactions: the truth of the encounter, of bodies that meet and become subjects through the medium of the camera gaze. The very last image, for instance, is of a young girl in the Basque country in 1939, at war’s end. She stands in front of a laden donkey, her head slightly bowed, her feet a little askew, one arm behind her back but the other (she hopes) almost nonchalantly balanced on the basket by her side. With a broad smile she looks directly at the camera. Here I think the caption gets it wrong in stating that “life remained the same as before for those children who were not orphaned or evacuated.” How could it? But what we see, in all the tension between the awkward pose and the beaming face, is the determination that, despite everything, life will go on. And this book, too, is the product of a similar determination: that even as the past slips into history, as memory becomes unreliable and at best second-hand, the soul of Republican Spain should continue to resonate into the future.

Reposted at The Volunteer, the journal of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives.

Reposted also at The Tyee, as “As Europe Roils, New Glimpses of Fighting Fascists 80 Years Ago”.


Nellie Campobello, Cartucho

By their nature, revolutions are both confused and confusing. They are the point at which one regime of sense gives way to another: they register a break in the prevailing discourse and the birth of another way of seeing and telling. By definition, the old ways of describing the world are no longer fit for purpose when the revolution comes around; but the new ways are not yet fully formed. A revolution is always in some sense illegible, unrepresentable, as the conditions of its representation have yet to appear.

But as such, in retrospect, revolutions are always portrayed as too legible, too easily represented. The new discourse assumes the revolution that enabled its emergence as a ground that can never be fully questioned. Revolutions are, in short, quickly naturalized, and their illegibility is erased or over-written by what becomes the common sense of the new order. The moment at which everything is still in play is forgotten or even forcibly repressed in the name of a genealogy that has to secure the new regime of intelligibility.

The challenge, then, is less to explain the revolution than to recover the revolutionary perspective itself, from which what is going on is always beyond full comprehension. Anything else is (quite literally) counter-revolutionary, as it goes against or undoes the force within the revolution that disrupts the existing discursive regime and makes space for a future that has to be strictly unknowable. To put this another way: explanation is the prerogative of constituted power, a tactic by which apparently to confirm that the present is the past’s inevitable telos; but the constituent power that drives the revolution has no fixed end.

This then is the virtue of Nellie Campobello’s Cartucho: that, though it was first published a decade or more after the events that it depicts, it strips them of the sense that had accumulated around them under the PRI. Campobello neither provides nor seeks explanation for the “tales of the struggle in Northern Mexico” that she relates. Rather, she conveys the revolution in all its confusion and indeterminacy, without ever sacrificing immediacy or concreteness.

The fragmentary style of Campobello’s text never aspires to unity or totality. There is no fixed beginning or end; instead, we are always in the midst of things, from the opening lines in which we are told that “Cartucho didn’t say his name. He didn’t know how to sew or replace buttons. One day his shirts were brought to our house” (6). It is not that temporal markers are entirely absent, it is just that they don’t pin the episodes down to any linear chronology, any all-encompassing narrative arc: “It was the fourth of September, but of what year?” (84). At any one moment Pancho Villa’s forces may be in town; but soon enough we will find ourselves among Carranzistas, before the Villistas sweep back in again.

There are endings, of course. Men die. Over and over, men die. But often enough the narrator doesn’t enquire why, and when we are given reasons they are as disparate and disordered as the ebb-and-flow of troops and weapons: “He died for a kiss the officer gallantly awarded him” (25); “He just had the face of a man lulled by fate” (55); “he was dying for a cause different from the revolution” (18). Even cause and effect are apparently inverted, as when one soldier is said to have “embraced the bullets and held on to them” (66), as though bodies drew bullets from guns.

Some of this effect is achieved through the device of a child narrator, whose memory clings to the sights and sounds of life in wartime, rather than to the justification that surround them: “I’m telling what impressed me most, no longer recalling any of the strange words or names I didn’t understand” (42). Overwhelmingly, however, there is also the sense that in a revolution, it is not just bodies that are felled, but with them a set of discourses that can simply no longer be spoken or heard. One man, before he is shot, cries out that “A man who’s going to die has a right to speak!” But moments later “everyone turned their backs on the grey form left lying there, pressing into the ground the words they never let him say” (52).

An Empty Room

Mu Xin, An Empty Room

The title of this collection of short stories by Mu Xin is well-chosen, for this is narrative that is sparse and under-stated, sometimes to an extreme. It would be easier at times to detail what doesn’t happen in these tales than what does, for there is a constant sense of missed opportunities, missed connections. In the opening story, “The Moment Childhood Vanished,” for instance, a child coming home from a trip to a Buddhist monastery leaves his bowl behind. Someone runs to fetch it, but then the child drops and loses it forever in a river. The title story, “An Empty Room,” recounts the discovery of a room that turns out to be almost, if not quite, empty: strewn on the floor are letters that seem to reveal a love story that can’t quite be fully pieced back together. “The Windsor Cemetery Diary” concerns a fleeting and uncertain dialogue between two people who never meet and communicate only by turning over a penny in an otherwise abandoned graveyard. As the narrator notes at one point, “I put these thoughts in my diary to show that there is nothing to be recorded” (134). Little to nothing happens, but it is precisely this nothingness that is to be memorialized and pondered.

And of course the room is not completely empty. In the story of the same name, there are traces of some other narrative, even if it can never be fully reconstructed. Or in the cemetery, the periodic flipping of the coin is sufficient basis on which an entire series of hypotheses can be constructed. And even if one day the coin were not to be flipped, that too would send a series of possible messages, such as “I am dead. I have completely forgotten you. I do not come anymore” (140). It is as though Xin were asking what is the minimum material element of a signifying system, the degree zero of signification. Yet he also teases us with the prospect that there might be more, that there might be a whole hidden script that might one day unfold. “Quiet Afternoon Tea,” for example, tells the tale of a long-married couple apparently plagued by an untold story, of what happened–or didn’t happen–one day (the date and time are quite precise: October 26th, 1944, between three and seven o’clock) some forty or fifty years previously. The couple’s niece seems to think that this is a story that has to be told, for the benefit of her uncle and aunt alike, and does everything in her power to engineer a cathartic dénouement. But nothing happens: she leaves the two of them alone, and “there isn’t a sound” (91). It’s as though the pair are in fact perfectly content for the mystery to remain, or even that it’s precisely what remains unsaid, not what is said, that keeps them together.

It would be easy, no doubt too easy, to ascribe this pared-down tone to some kind of Asian reserve. Indeed, at times Xu seems to play on the notion of Buddhist self-abnegation: one story (“Fellow Passengers”) compares us to pipes “through which both joy and sadness flow. A pipe with all sorts of emotion flowing through it until one’s death or until it is emptied” (97). It ends with the dual assertion: “They are insignificant people. I am less than insignificant” (98). And yet there is a fascination with the almost ethereal traces left by such insignificance, traces that ultimately signify almost despite themselves, despite our shared hollowness or emptiness. In “Halo,” then, there is a lengthy discussion of the iconography of saintliness, in both Western and Eastern cultures. The Western halo, we’re told, is “false and awkward,” a “flaw [. . .] so embarrassing that it further inspires the eloquence of atheists” (108). The Eastern halo, by contrast, is more than mere pictorial “decoration” (112); it derives from an “internal calmness bordering on the state of sainthood” (110).

In the end, however, Xin rejects Western and Eastern traditions alike, in favour of “another kind of halo,” much more materialist if equally minimalist, “that exists in the dim realm of suffering” (112). He has a sculptor tell a story of when he was imprisoned “in the second half of the twentieth century, in a certain decade” (113)–one of Xu’s fleeting but repeated allusions to his own incarceration, during China’s Cultural Revolution. In a crowded cell, the artist meets an old man who mentions the Buddhist halo and then points to the cell wall against which the more privileged inmates sit and where:

Miraculously, I could suddenly make out a hazy circle behind the head of each prisoner. With so many heads repeatedly rubbing against the chalky surface, sweat had tainted patches of the wall in circular shapes. Since everyone was of a different height, the repeated rubbing produced circles of proportionate size to the heads before them. The circles were exactly like the dignified light of Buddha portrayed in ancient art. [. . .] I almost burst out laughing–the subtle profundity had to be felt not just spoken. (115-6)

Once the prisons were emptied, then, the halos would remain, a ghostly but absolutely material trace that can only point to, never fully encapsulate, an entire history of power and something like resistance that goes beyond words. And when the sculptor finishes his tale, “We raised our glasses. Why we didn’t quite know why we needed to empty the glasses, we emptied them anyway” (116). Mu Xin shows no great nostalgia for the fuller description and understanding that is inevitably lost; he knows them to be irrecuperable. Such is the way of the world, the effects of time and history. But even in their inevitably incomplete, precarious state, the traces of these broader histories deserve some acknowledgement, perhaps celebration, though we may not exactly know why.

La nave de los locos I

Cristina Peri Rossi, La nave de los locos

The cover of Cristina Peri Rossi’s La nave de los locos features an image by the German/American artist Jan Balet. It’s a rather austere composition, of a small and apparently over-loaded rowing boat carrying three women, one middle-aged man, and a child, plus a younger man who has hold of the oars. Fortunately, perhaps, for all concerned, the surface of the water itself is smooth as glass, and two of the women are standing up in the tiny boat. But as a result, the arrangement strangely lacks almost all movement: the figures awkwardly stare out at the viewer as though from a formal portrait. Moreover, the composition is also practically devoid of colour: water and sky merge in a murky haze of grey, and all the adult figures are head-to-toe in black (the women, with long-sleeved and high-necked dresses plus extravagant featured hats), as though they were in mourning. The child, meanwhile, is dressed in white, but this only serves to accentuate her enormous dark eyes, which seem to be less organs of sight than black holes sunk deep into her face. As a whole, the picture’s ambience is macabre and disturbing. This is no happy family outing, but perhaps a snapshot of the Victorian bourgeoisie slowly crossing the Styx to some prim and proper Hades.

The choice of Balet’s painting for the book’s cover brings out some of the themes contained within: the notion of forced voyages, for instance, or of melancholy resignation and shared solitudes. But in fact the image to which the text itself obsessively returns is very different: it is the medieval “Tapesty of Creation” that can be found in the Museum of the Cathedral of Girona. And though almost a millennium of history has done its work to degrade the fabric and the threads that run though it, it is clear that the tapestry was originally a riot of colour: even now the reds and greens and burnished golds stand out. For this is an account of Genesis, not death: a celebration of God’s creation and of the diversity and order that coexist in the world he brought into being. A central panel depicts the Garden of Eden with all the beasts and birds that inhabited it. Around the edges are vignettes of the months and the seasons and the activities characteristics of the various phases of the agricultural year. What is more, and in contrast to the uncanny sense of disquiet and unease that Balet’s image imparts, in the Girona tapestry (as the book puts it) “everything is so disposed such that man should feel in perfect harmony, consubstantial, integrated into the universe, surrounded by creatures both fantastic and real” (20).

Tapestry of the Creation

Descriptions of the tapestry run through the book and seem to offer some key to its structure and meaning. Book and image alike, for instance, offer less of a linear narrative (though there are moments or aspects of linearity, such as the creation story itself and the progression through the year) and more of a patchwork or mosaic of impressions and episodes. They suggest, moreover, that real fragmentation–in the tapestry’s case, the fact that much of the original is now missing–can find compensation in the mind of the active reader or viewer. As the book puts it of the medieval needlework, its “structure [is] so perfect and geometrical, so verifiable that even with almost half of it missing, it is possible to reconstruct the whole, if not on the cathedral wall then within a frame of the mind’s devising” (21). In similar vein, at a number of points Peri Rossi’s book challenges the reader to look for hidden points of order that might help give sense to what is otherwise a fragmentary and sometimes confusing narrative. For instance, the narrator invites “the reader to play a very entertaining game” of figuring out “the true name of the cities evoked” in the description of the principal character’s restless wanderings (37). Indeed, the character himself goes by the name of “X,” as though hinting towards some kind of mystery that the reader might also ultimately solve: X marks the spot of the buried treasure that would be the “perfect harmony” and “perfectly intelligible discourse” (20, 21) that the book claims the tapestry promises the committed viewer.

And yet, despite the fact that the idea (or dream) of harmony runs as a leitmotif throughout the book’s disparate parts, in practice there is very little of it to be seen. X himself, for example, is at first sight at least very far from being “integrated into the universe.” Or if he is, then this is a universe characterized more by chance encounters and random violence than by beneficent order. He tries to assert some kind of logic and familiarity to his unsettled drifting by clinging to certain habits of cultural consumption: always buying the same books in each new city he finds himself in, for example. But he is constantly led astray, not least by the women that he meet who can seem at times to be all too reminiscent of the Biblical Eve who likewise turned out to be a disruptive force within the idyll that was Eden. And yet Peri Rossi refuses to condemn Eve (even as she will catalogue the ways in which young children habitually repeat the accusations that it is she who is responsible for mankind’s downfall).

In the end, La nave de los locos is rather ambivalent about the so-called harmony that an image such as the Girona Tapestry professes. After all, as a footnote observes, such harmony depends on violence in that “it presupposes the destruction of the real elements that oppose it, and for that reason it is almost always symbolic” (20). This is where a gap opens up between symbolic representation and the real. And X, for all that he sometimes seems–from his (missing) name onwards–to be pure symbol, is ultimately for good or ill condemned to live in the universe of the real. It might be nice to live in the eternal present (or eternal past) of the tapestry’s cyclical, God-ordained symmetry, but in fact we are historical beings, and history’s revenge on such dreams of symmetry can be seen in its gradual degradation, its frayed edges, and the dimming of the colours so that they end up rather closer to Balet’s drained greys than the twelfth-century artisans would have hoped.