The Saturday photo, part XIII: I’ve been browsing some of the photos of Mogadishu on Flickr. It is, of course, a quite spectacularly ruined city. But, as with (almost?) all ruins, not without its beauty. This is the old port:

Mogadishu old port
Recently I ordered my own copy of Robert Ginsberg’s strange book, The Aesthetics of Ruins. It’s strange for many reason, and that strangeness is no doubt enhanced by the fact that it’s apparently a self-published labor of love. But it is to my mind the most interesting book on ruins yet written.


Jacques Derrida’s Memoirs of the Blind started life as the catalogue for an exhibition curated at the Louvre, and it was certainly provocative for the philosopher to take blindness as his theme at this institution so devoted to the powers of sight. Indeed, Derrida includes within the text the moment in which he first came up with the idea for the show. It is of course a scene of writing, but also of blindness and (potential) accident as, driving home from his first meeting at the museum:

the theme of the exhibition hits me. All of a sudden, in an instant. I scribble at the wheel a provisional title for my own use, to organize my notes: L’ouvre où ne pas voir. (32-33)

This title translates as “The Open Where Not to See” but also plays on the homophony between “L’ouvre” and “Louvre”: the Louvre as a place where one does not see. The most renowned temple to the visual arts as a place of blindness.

So Derrida wants to draw a (self-)portrait of Western representation in which blindness is a central concern or even enabling possibility. All drawing, indeed, he claims to be the representation of the blind by the blind. Among other things, this means that the draftsman is inevitably either looking at the object of representation (and so cannot see what he is drawing on the page) or is looking at the representation as he makes it come into being (and so cannot see what he is drawing in life). Drawing is therefore necessarily mediated by memory: no portrait is ever a picture of the thing itself, but rather of something that has always already been worked on by the mind and experience.

But this mediation is inevitably problematic, imperfect, and so in some sense ruined or ruining. As Derrida the driver scribbles blindly while he keeps his eyes on the road, or looks down at his pad and so is distracted from his driving, in either case he risks ruin or accident: a meaningless scrawl on the one hand, that fails to record the idea that had suddenly struck him; or the possibility of suddenly striking a pedestrian or another vehicle while trying to make sense of the exhibition to come.

Yet the ruin is not simply accident or potential disaster; it is fundamental to the project of (self-)representation: “In the beginning there is ruin. Ruin is what happens to the image from the moment of the first gaze” (68).

Hence a necessary hesitation. At best, perhaps, at such times the multitasking driver, blind either to the road or to the representation of his or her own thoughts, may start to veer from side to side, or miss his or her turning. And blindness is after all associated with wandering or getting lost, just as wandering can in turn induce blindness both literal (snow blindness, for instance) and figurative.

And so it is also that Derrida’s own text rather wanders through the historical tradition as he makes his way through the Louvre’s immense archive. In what is imagined to be some kind of dialogue (with whom, it is never specified; perhaps some other, rather more skeptical self), Derrida roams between readings of specific works to general theories of drawing to speculations on the imagination of blindness from Homer or the Cyclops to St. Paul on the road to Damascus and on to the nineteenth-century realist self-portrait (but strangely, not very much further).

This is not an argument as such, more a tour d’horizon in which the horizon is very much closer than we may like, and is indeed more often an interior horizon than an exterior one: as Derrida notes, we are repeatedly reminded that physical, external sight must be extinguished for spiritual, internal vision to flourish. Along the way in this intimate journey there is plenty of insight, if much that is also naturally blurred and hard to make out.

Finally, then, Derrida ends not so much with a bang but a whimper, with the suggestion that eyes are less for seeing than for weeping, that “tears and not sight are the essence of the eye” (126), and that it is when our vision is clouded with tears, most ruined or ruinous, that we are closest to “the very truth of the eyes” (127).


[This is the text of a talk I gave at Haiti benefit at the University of British Columbia last week.]

“Haiti in Ruins”

As the TV footage and images circulated in newspapers and on the Internet attest, Haiti is in ruins. In towns near the epicenter of last week’s earthquake, up to 90% of the buildings have been damaged or destroyed. The capital, Port-au-Prince, has been devastated, and where homes, offices, hospitals, and schools (and so on) have not actually collapsed, they are very often now structurally unsound. It is relatively poor consolation to observe that this has been something of an equal-opportunities disaster. The national palace was reduced to a single storey, half the UN Mission’s compound was destroyed, and victims have included senators and the country’s Catholic archbishop. Still, as always, it is the poor who bear the brunt, and who face the greatest challenges in the earthquake’s aftermath. Hundreds of thousands are sleeping and living outside, fearful that aftershocks will bring down what precariously remains. Meanwhile, rescuers and rapid-response teams from abroad are returning home; it is very unlikely that any more survivors will emerge from the rubble. The air is filled with the stench of corpses that are buried under the debris. Ruination and decay are everywhere; the living are forced to cohabit with the dead, in a physical and social landscape scarred by destruction and haunted by the reminders of recent catastrophe.

Haitians are used to living within ruins. This is a land that has known more than its share of death and destruction. In the sixteenth century, Hispaniola’s indigenous inhabitants were decimated and ultimately wiped out by the disease, malnutrition, and violence unleashed by the arrival of Spanish imperialism. As the so-called “Pearl of the Antilles” the subsequent French colony of Saint Domingue was insatiable in its demand for slaves to work in the plantations that supplied sweet sugar for European tastes: over 800,000 Africans were imported from places such as the Ivory Coast, the Congo, and what is now Ghana, Nigeria, and even Mozambique from 1680 to 1776; more had continually to be transported because the rigors of the slave system meant that over half died within eight years of arrival in the colony. More recently, for a over quarter of a century, from 1957 to 1986, Haitians had to endure the dynastic dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude or “Baby Doc,” whose feared paramilitary militia, the so-called “Tonton Macoutes,” anchored a reign of terror, brutality, and corruption. The name “Tonton Macoute” is borrowed from a folkloric bogeyman, a ghostly figure said to prowl the streets after dark looking to kidnap unwary children. It is no wonder that Haitian popular beliefs and religious practices (not least the African-inspired hybrid “voodoo” or vodou) are so concerned with the presence of death in life and life in death. It is easy to believe in zombies in Haiti, surrounded by the reminders of a violent past, a ruined present, and a precarious future.

Yet to view Haitian history in this light is all too often to imagine a land defined by its perpetual victimhood. Hence the constant references today to the commonplace that this is the poorest country in the hemisphere, and the appeal for compassion, to come to its citizens’ aid. Yes, we should certainly do all we can to help Haiti, and now more than ever. But not out of some kind of sympathy towards the weak and helpless at the fringes or margins of Western modernity. If anything, our relations with Haiti need to be transformed by a recognition of the country’s centrality and its people’s capacity and agency. For the truth is that, if we are to talk of responsibility or debt, we owe Haiti much more than Haiti can ever owe us. The country’s ruins are an indication of stubborn persistence and strength, as much as they also testify to the brutality and violence that the Haitians have had to suffer.

In February last year I traveled to Cap Haitien, the country’s former capital, to see some of the most extraordinary structures in the Americas, found near the now small and rather sleepy town of Milot, where the northern plain meets the mountainous interior. The Palace of Sans Souci was once the residence of Henri Christophe, who ruled as Henri I, sovereign of the independent kingdom of Northern Haiti from 1811 to 1820. It was then and still remains (even in ruins, product in part of an 1842 earthquake) a remarkable construction: built in a hybrid style influenced by a variety of European architectural traditions, it had sculptures, immense gardens, and an innovative and complex system of waterworks that functioned as a form of air conditioning. Sans Souci bears comparison with any palace or mansion in Europe or elsewhere. But the true marvel is a few miles further along. This is the building that inspired the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier to conceive the concept of the “marvelous real” that has since (in the form of “magical realism”) come to define Latin America as a whole: the immense Citadelle Laferrière, the largest fortification in the Americas, which sits atop the 3,000 ft Bonnet a L’Eveque mountain that rises behind Milot to look out towards the Caribbean Sea. The Citadelle is Haiti’s iconic ruin, a mainstay of national iconography and source of fascination not only for Carpentier but also for instance for the Martinican writer Aimé Césaire who would declare that Haiti was the fount of what he called négritude, which we might loosely translate as “black pride.” For the Citadelle is a ruin that indicates not helplessness and victimhood, but freedom and self-reliance.

The central fact about Haiti, the reason that this is perhaps the most significant country in the Americas, even the key site for Western modernity as a whole, is not its history of disaster and suffering, but its tradition of resistance and self-affirmation. Haiti’s protracted and violent revolution of 1791 to 1803 is the world’s only successful slave revolt and, more importantly still, its first truly modern revolution. It was in Haiti that the principle of universal emancipation was proclaimed and won. For while the framers of the American Declaration of Independence were prepared to live, more or less uneasily, with the continued practice of slavery, and while the French defenders of the so-called rights of “man” were still debating as to whether blacks could or should count as either men or citizens, Haitian slaves took matters into their own hands and fought for the notion that freedom, if it meant anything, had to be freedom for all. Emancipation had to be universal, or it was not truly emancipation. It is for this idea, and the stubborn insistence on defending it at all costs, that we owe Haiti.

Henri Christophe’s Citadelle Laferrière, then, is a reminder of the tenacity with which Haitians held on to their revolutionary achievement. Built, not without controversy (it was perhaps not the only or the best way to go about things) and at immense sacrificial labor (every stone, every cannon, every cannon ball had to be hauled up the mountain), the castle was to be the ultimate redoubt and defence should the French return once more to attempt to re-establish slavery. For Napoleon had indeed in 1801 already sent out an expedition in the charge of his brother-in-law Charles Leclerc, determined to recapture what had been by far the richest of all of France’s colonial possessions. It was then that Christophe had shown he was prepared to set Cap Haitien on fire (by way of example, he torched his own home first) rather than give the French any satisfaction or allow any return to the status quo ante. Sometimes, Christophe seemed to suggest, a ruin or two was the price one paid for a greater principle. So ruination does not always mean defeat: it can also invoke resistance (what is a ruin after all but what persists, despite everything?); it can be the positive product of a people taking history into their own hands, rather than simply the negative sign of yet another historic defeat.

None of this is to say that we should somehow perversely celebrate the latest ruins that litter Port-au-Prince and southern Haiti. Nor, far from it, that we should take Haitians’ historic self-reliance as an excuse not to help out now in their time of need. Haiti has been forced to go it alone too often, for instance during the nineteenth century when the United States and European powers long refused to recognize its independence, and France eventually did so only at the price of a massive indemnity that crippled the country’s economy with effects that continue into the present. Even worse have been the forms of intervention premised on either condescension or fear: the last thing that Haiti needs is yet another military occupation, and it is simply shocking how in recent days the situation of the masses in the devastated slums of Port-au-Prince has been framed as a security issue first and a humanitarian crisis only secondarily. To turn our backs on Haiti or to view it as a problem is to repeat the age-old ideology that can acknowledge only in distorted form the fact that Haiti poses a radical alternative within modernity: the novel but surely incontrovertible notion that a benefit for some should also be a benefit for all. Indeed, Haiti and its ruins teach us that if we refuse to share a benefit universally, without prejudice of race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation (and so on), then it is not a benefit but a privilege whose raison d’être is exclusion. We should help Haitians now not because they need us, but because we need them.


The Wednesday quotation, part XIII: Jacques Derrida on ruination and love:

Ruin is not a negative thing. First, it is obviously not a thing. One could write [. . .] a short treatise on the love of ruins. What else is there to love, anyway? One cannot love a monument, a work of architecture, an institution as such except in an experience itself precarious in its fragility: it has not always been there, it will not always be there, it is finite. And for this very reason one loves it as mortal, through its birth and its death, through one’s own birth and death, through the ghost or the silhouette of its ruin, one’s own ruin–which it already is, therefore, or already prefigures. How can one love otherwise than in this finitude? (“Force of Law,” Acts of Religion [London: Routledge, 2002], 278)

Mike Johnduff quotes the same passage and has some interesting things to say about Derrida, ruins, and love (mainly riffing off Memoirs of the Blind) at Working Notes. The image above comes from Zingology. And there are some further thoughts about ruins at borrowed city, not least “Love Among the Ruin Porn” parts one (Highland Park) and two (the Heidelberg project).


There is almost always something reticent about a ruin: a ruin is a retreat, a fading away. What was once foreground starts to melt into the background as the built environment cedes to the natural environment. Nature takes the place of culture as weeds start to push through cracked stones, wood rots away, or solid rock sinks into the sand. There may come a point at which it is hard to discern the ruin from the jungle or the desert. At some point the ruin may disappear altogether as it becomes one with its surroundings.

The disconcerting thing about Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO-designated site in southern Alberta, is that from the outset it was already fully part of its surroundings. Figure was already ground. For the ruin is simply a cliff (and a relatively slight one to boot) that briefly interrupts the long descent from the Rockies to the Great Plains. It was here that, for several millennia, native Americans enticed buffalo to their death, again precisely by blurring or dissimulating the distinction between human activity and natural environment.

Indeed, it is hard to locate the site of the Buffalo Jump itself. You have to be told or shown. Head-Smashed-In depends upon the pedagogical work of demonstration, explanation, and interpretation without which it would hardly even come to light. Or more precisely, Head-Smashed-In highlights the role of imagination in the construction of the ruin: it’s no accident that archaeologist Jack Brink’s book about the site is entitled Imagining Head-Smashed-In. As he puts it, “capturing people and events that disappeared from our world centuries ago requires a judicious helping of imagination.” But never is this more true than with those “many ancient cultures that [. . .] managed to survive in demanding environments for extraordinary lengths of time without leaving towering monuments to themselves.” Brink’s task is “to show how simple lines of rocks stretching across the prairies are every bit as inspirational as rocks piled up in the shape of a pyramid” (xii). He has to sell us the idea that this is a ruin.

Hence at Head-Smashed-In it is the interpretive center that is the focus of the visit experience. Many ruins have some kind of signage or attached museum, but usually they can be appreciated well enough without resort to such ancillary explanation. Here, however, the interpretation overwhelms the ruin itself. The museum is built into the cliff alongside the Jump, and it is impossible to see the archaeological site from within its galleries. Though you can access a gallery from which to view the cliff-face at the top of the building, the majority of a visitor’s time is necessarily spent in the enclosed space of the museum through which you have to pass twice, both on the way up and on the way down. And this interpretive center, while dedicated to explaining what is just outside, in fact looks in on itself and the multiple reconstructions of the site that it contains. For all intents and purposes, this museum could be any place whatever.

The reconstructions of the site within the museum include scale models, images, and video. Three full-size replica of buffalo at the top of a fiberglass cliff dominate much of the interior space. Staff direct you to a fifteen-minute filmed reconstruction of the indigenous buffalo hunt (made by a company called “Myth Merchant Films”) in which computer-generated imagery aids a spectacle that aims at considerable realism. In helping us imagine the buffalo jump, the interpretive center leaves little to the imagination.

But whose imagination is at work here? The museum’s problem is that it has to negotiate between multiple modes of interpretation: deductions based on archaeological evidence, readings of historical texts left by European travelers, and memories passed down through oral history among the First Nations. Often there is a tension between these different narrative strategies, and the museum tries to maintain a counterpoint between some fairly standard displays and, for instance, the text of indigenous legends that is projected upon those displays.

So in some ways the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is peculiarly detached from its ostensible object, both because it reproduces that object within a space that is literally to one side, and because the multiple interpretations that the object generates are allowed more or less free reign. The visit experience becomes all about the creative vagaries of imagination. And yet the notion that this is a physical site is also clearly of vital importance, in that it is to anchor these otherwise drifting narratives, to help us re-read the natural environment as shaped by cultural and historical processes. In the end both the scientific and the mythic narratives come together in the indigenist claim that native Americans have a particular relationship to the landscape, and indeed to the land itself.


The Saturday photo, part IX: the Citadelle Laferrière, Haiti.

OK, I know it’s not actually Saturday, but I hope to say more about this in the next couple of days. I have, however, much to do in the meantime…


Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s “The Three Faces of Sans Souci” takes the Haitian ruins of Sans Souci as a case study for his investigation into historiography and the “silencing of the past.” What’s interesting is that he regards the ruins themselves as both complicit in this silencing and as a form of resistance against it.

Sans Souci refers, in the first instance, to the lavish palace built by Henry Christophe, self-styled post-revolutionary King of Haiti (or rather, the north of the country) in the early nineteenth century. In the second instance, it refers to another palace of the same name, built a few years earlier by Prussian Emperor Frederick the Great in Potsdam, near Berlin. Finally, Sans Souci was also the name of a now almost forgotten Haitian revolutionary who had, in fact, been put to death on Christophe’s orders.

Trouillot’s argument is that the Haitian palace is named for Christophe’s former rival, in order both to establish and to extirpate his memory. On the one hand, “Henry killed Sans Souci twice: first, literally, during their last meeting; second, symbolically, by naming his most famous palace Sans Souci . . . [which] erased Sans Souci from Christophe’s own past, and it erased him from his future.” On the other hand, “Christophe may even have wanted to perpetuate the memory of his enemy as the most formidable one he defeated” (59). However, now that it is generally assumed that the source of the name was its German precursor, even that original silencing is itself silenced and the revolutionary Sans Souci effectively disappears from history. The final result is “an erasure more effective than the absence or failure of memory, whether faked or genuine” (60).

Yet Trouillot also suggests that acts of erasure such as Henry Christophe’s are “silences of resistance, silences thrown against a superior silence,” specifically here the silence “which Western historiography has produced around the revolution of Saint Domingue / Haiti.” In this context the now “crumbling walls” of the former palace “still stand as a last defense against oblivion” (69). They recall at least one move in the internecine strategies played out among those who led the Haitian revolution, disrupting both the heroic narrative preferred by Haitians themselves, and also the broader attempt to portray the revolution as some kind of non-event.

Finally, Trouillot further argues that history is necessarily incomplete, and so warns against the hyper-empiricist fantasy that “an enlargement of the empirical base” will necessarily lead to “the production of a ‘better’ history.” No: “Silences are inherent in history because any single event enters history with some of its constituting parts missing” (49). As such, history is always a collection of ruins; it is history itself that is, at root, ruined in advance.


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

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

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

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

Read more… (.pdf file)


Asia el culo del mundo posterJuan Carlos Torrico’s rather strange film Asia, el culo del mundo is not, despite its title (“Asia, Asshole of the World”), some kind of Orientalist diatribe. Rather it’s more of a Peruvian version of Paris, Texas. For it turns out that somewhere in the dusty desert about 100km south of Lima is a Godforsaken place that rejoices in the name of “Asia.”

And it’s in Asia that the movie’s protagonists end up when their car breaks down in the midst of an ill-advised short cut. The motley retinue of maroons comprises: Manuel, a young ne’er-do-well who is fleeing south to escape some unspecified trouble in Lima that has left him with a bullet wound in his arm; his (step)father Fortunato, a retired soldier who still sees and describes the world through military terminology and outdated nationalist rhetoric; and Beatriz, a young woman along for the ride who has dreamed of a place called Asia where there might be ancient ruins and a staircase to heaven.

Asia el culo del mundo stillSo Beatriz at least is content enough with the trio’s plight, as she has found literally herself in the place of her dreams. She soon embarks on the construction of a giant geometrical design in the desert ground, something like a set of Nazca lines to attract passing deities. Fortunato falls in with the plan, happy to have some kind of mission. And Manuel perks up from his initial gloom and frustration as he’s gradually attracted to the sole occupant of this desolate waste, a young woman by the name of Dora who has a penchant for transparent blouses and mudbaths in a nearby lake.

Trouble is brewing, however, as it turns out that Dora does not live here alone: her partner Santiago is due back at any moment, and Manuel recognizes from a discarded uniform that the master of the house must be a cop or an ex-cop. But it’s worse than Manuel can imagine. For Santiago proves to be a somewhat crazed individual, prone to violent rages, loud harangues, cutting the tails off goats and covering himself in their blood. He’s brought his beloved here to Asia in order to keep her safe from prying eyes or potential competitors. Alas, Manuel’s intervention has therefore spoilt his vision of rural tranquility, and in recompense Santiago covers his torso with dark black mud, ties his rival to a tree in the middle of nowhere, starts inflicting on him something like a death from a thousand cuts, while all the time lecturing him on fatherhood and the perils of military service.

For in some strange way, this is actually a film about the Sendero war, and war in general. Santiago is in fact an ex-Sinchi, a member of one of the feared battalions who were on the front line of the war against the Maoist insurgency. However, he was accused (he tells Manuel) of violations of human rights, even though all he ever did was for the fatherland and against terrorism, and was left out to dry by the service. This (alongside, it should be added, various other misfortunes such as the loss of his father and the fact that he’s unable to have children) is what seems to have turned his mind.

But in his crazed manner, Santiago is also a good sport. It’s all part of the code of machismo that he’s busy teaching his Limeñan adversary, whom he constantly calls “gringo.” So not only does he untie Manuel, he also passes him his knife, daring him to use it. Which the young man duly does, and so that’s the end of Santiago.

Meanwhile, no deities see fit to drop in on Beatriz’s ancient-style landing strip, though right at the end Fortunato comes to believe that the group are under attack, orders a military reveille, and then falls down dead in mid-charge against his imaginary adversaries. He’s then buried in the precincts of some nearby ruins. But the ending is happy in any case: we discover that the entire film has been narrated by Fortunato himself from his new position as sentinel guarding the gateway between life and death. And Manuel is left with two women to himself, one of whom he has managed successfully to impregnate.

It really would be hard to understate the strangeness of this movie, but its import is clear enough. Ravaged by war, Peru is now a desert in which only madmen and nostalgics thrive. The drive to recover ancient traditions may not bring back the powers of old, but it seems to be a step in the right direction towards accommodating oneself to life in this barren and deceptive outpost in the South. Whether we should really take heart in this message, I’m not so sure. Still less as to how much we should applaud this grandiose but ultimate failed attempt to lodge avant-garde theatrics within a national cinematic tradition whose forte has been either social realism or urban comedy. But oddly I find myself glad that they tried.

YouTube Link: brief cellphone footage from contemporary Asia, Peru. Mildly diverting for its final dialogue.