Testimonio and the Politics of Truth


This semester I’m teaching what my university designates as a “research-intensive” seminar, and figured that this would be an opportunity, among other things, to thematize and question the practice of “research” itself. This I am aiming to do by means of an investigation into Latin American testimonio and the “politics of truth,” with current events in the USA and elsewhere as an ever-present backdrop to our discussions.

You can check out the course website, but here’s the blurb, and below it are links to posts I’m writing in connection with the course…

“The question of ‘truth’ and its importance (or its unimportance) is at issue now more than ever. Oxford Dictionaries have declared that their ‘word of 2016’ was ‘post-truth.’ The idea of ‘post-truth’ is that people are less concerned with whether something is true or not, than with how it makes them feel. It is argued that some of the most decisive political events of the past year–not least the rise of President Elect Donald Trump in the USA–can be explained by this phenomenon.

“If research (fact-checking, investigation) no longer seems to count, or to make much difference to how people think or act, its usefulness or legitimacy is now in question.

“So we will not simply be practicing research in this seminar. We will also be thinking about what it means to do research, what is the point of doing research, and how our ideas about research might have changed over time.

“As a way to think about these issues, we will be reading a series of texts from Latin America that deal with testimony, witnessing, and historical investigation. They include Rodolfo Walsh’s Operación masacre, Miguel Barnet’s Biografía de un cimarrón, Elizabeth Burgos and Rigoberta Menchú’s Me llamo Rigoberto Menchú, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s El hablador. These often deal with issues of great importance for ordinary people: state violence, human rights, cultural identity. But their truthfulness has also been questioned, or they have even questioned what we think to be true. We will look therefore at the controversies and debates that these texts have provoked. And we will research them, but we will also ask ourselves about what we are doing (and why) as we do such research.”

La noche de Tlatelolco


One of the repeated chants of Mexico’s student movement in the 1960s, among the many reproduced in Elena Poniatowska’s La noche de Tlatelolco, is a demand for dialogue: “DIA-LOGUE-DIA-LOGUE-DIA-LOGUE-DIA-LOGUE-DIA-LOGUE.” As one of her informants puts it, this is because “the government’s been talking to itself for fifty years now” (30; 38); or as another puts it, “The PRI,” the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, “doesn’t go in for dialogues, just monologues” (86; 90). Hence no doubt the form of Poniatowska’s own book, composed as it is of a multitude of snippets (of interviews, pronouncements, chants, newspaper articles, and so on) from all sides. Dialogue proved impossible in the real world, on the streets or in council chambers, as it was cut short by the violent repression of the student movement, the imprisonment of its leaders, and particularly by the massacre at Tlatelolco, in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, that gives this book its title. But it is as though that impossible dialogue were now (almost) realized on the page as slogans face headlines, and witnesses from a variety of backgrounds speak of their experiences, one after another. Moreover, as Poniatowska makes little overt effort to impose a unified narrative or reconcile disparities (though there is no doubt that there is artfulness and intention in the ordering and placement of the various fragments), it is almost as if we catch that dialogue in midstream, any conclusion endlessly postponed.

But I say that this fantasy of dialogue is only almost realized on the page, not merely because it is in the nature of testimonio (as we have seen for instance with Biografía de un cimarrón) that the written word betrays, by fixing and so deadening, oral expression. It is also that the extreme fragmentation here threatens to undermine any attempt to make sense at all, refusing not only the forced coherence of the authoritarian state but also any unity to which the student movement itself might aspire. Even the chant itself, as it is printed here, breaks down the demand for dialogue into its constituent syllables and no longer respects either the unity of the word or its separation from any other: “DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO-DIA-LO-GO.” In the frenetic repetition of the march, meaning slips away to be replaced by sheer sound, by elements that could be recombined in more than one way, to more than one end or effect. The onus then is on the reader to pick up and combine the pieces, but even so it is not clear that any single narrative could ever gather together all the fragments and make them cohere. But then surely this is part of the point: if ever there had once been a chance for dialogue, now not even literature (or testimonio) can bring that moment back.

Poniatowska does not claim to establish the truth of what happened at Tlatelolco. Even as she effectively undermines the official version of events, she makes little attempt to substitute it with a new, more authoritative, version. She wrests the monopoly of the truth from the state, without presuming to claim ownership of it herself.

For hers is less a fact-finding mission than a therapeutic howl that puts language to the ultimate test. As she says in one of her very few editorial interventions, halfway through the book, even to consider delving for the truth would be somehow offensive to the victims: “Grief is a very personal thing. Putting it into words is almost unbearable; hence asking questions, digging for facts, borders on an invasion of people’s privacy” (199; 164). Instead, what she aims to provide is a space for the expression of that inexpressive grief that makes the animal within us (bare, unqualified life) come to the fore, as with the mother that Poniatowska describes as “so stunned that for days and days she uttered scarcely a word, and then suddenly, like a wounded animal–an animal whose belly is being ripped apart–she let out a hoarse, heart-rending cry, from the very center of her life.” This is “the sort of wild keening that is the end of everything, the wail of ultimate pain from the wound that will never heal” (199; 164). As such, even to call La noche de Tlatelolco an exercise in therapy is to say too much, as it would imply that healing can someday come–a claim as offensive and intolerable as the high-handed notion that there is some relationship between truth and reconciliation, or even that either were ever desirable. No. What matters is less what these fragments say than what they can never say, or what they say only by revealing the insufficiency and arrogance of any claims to truth or certainty. These pages, if they express anything, are the place for “the mute cry that stuck in thousands of throats, the blind grief in thousands of horror-stricken eyes on October 2, 1968, the night of Tlatelolco” (199; 164).

Biografía de un cimarrón


The key to a testimonio is almost always found in its paratexts–its preface or introduction, epilogue or afterword. Which itself is odd enough: if this is a genre noted for, indeed for some defined by, its presentation of a story as it is, without literary pretensions, it is remarkable how much varnish its truth seems to require. But then it is these paratexts themselves that claim to offer the guarantee of veracity and legitimacy, often enough by laying bare (apparently) the mechanism of the text’s production, assuring us that what we see is really what we get. Moreover, it is in these supposedly ancillary texts that the testimonio’s editor or compiler, who otherwise usually removes his or her traces from the text itself (so that the informant can speak unadorned), outlines his or her role as the stand-in for the reader. For if the essence of the genre is its basis in the oral discourse of a subaltern presumed to be an outsider to literate culture, the original interviewer has to vouch for the bona fides of that original contact, even as he or she betrays it by subsequently translating oral exchange into written form. We are then to imagine ourselves in the editor’s place: listening more than reading, hearing the subaltern “speak,” as our proxy did for us once before. It is in a testimonio’s introduction or preface, then, that the book’s compiler often attests to his or her personal, affective, unmediated relationship to the book’s narrator, conjuring up a bond into which the reader can project themselves even as the editor outlines all the intermediary steps required for that fantasy to stick.

So it is, then, with Cuban anthropologist Miguel Barnet’s introduction to Biografía de un cimarrón (1966), the testimony of former runaway slave Esteban Montejo, which assures us that the book is based on a “living dialogue” between interviewer and interviewee (15). Barnet tells us that, having identified Montejo as a suitable source–mostly because of his extreme age, but also because of the intrinsic interest of his life–he put to good use “the customary resources of ethnological research” (for ethnologists have their customs, too). He tried to resolve some of Montejo’s immediate problems, to do with money, women, and health. He then gave him some small gifts: tobacco, badges, photos. And so the conversation began, if not quite along the lines that Barnet had originally envisaged when he thought that this would be primarily a study of the survival of African religious traits among Cuba’s black population. Indeed, at the outset, Barnet tells us, things were decidedly difficult, as Montejo “showed himself to be rather surly” (16). Perhaps the usual ethnological blandishments had not been enough! But even the tale of these difficulties serves its purpose, in that Barnet is telling us the story of how Montejo came (almost) to trust him, in the end even to “identify with us,” once he “realized the interest of the task at hand” (16). The gap between letrado and subaltern is visibly shrinking as the introduction proceeds.

But testimonio cannot rely on gifts, identification, or affective pact alone. Technology, specifically tape recording, is also a ubiquitous guarantee both of authenticity in that it (quite literally) captures the voice verbatim, and of the seriousness of the investigator’s research in that he or she can then go back over the interview and deepen his or her familiarity with the subject. As Barnet puts it: “Many of our sessions were recorded on magnetic tapes. This allowed us to familiarize ourselves with the linguistic forms, turns of phrase, syntax, archaisms, and idioms of [Montejo’s] speech” (18). The interviewer can thus immerse himself in his informant’s world, even if such immersion then begins to provoke doubt… “The need to verify facts, dates, or other details led us to have conversations with veterans who were more or less his contemporary. But none of them were old enough to have lived through the periods or events that Esteban related” (18).

Ultimately, the paratextual attempt to guarantee the veracity of the text as a whole ends up offering hostages to fortune. The description of the methodology by which the book came into being reminds us, whether we like it or not, of the multiple mediations that give the lie to the direct reproduction of experience that the book otherwise wishes to tell us it is presenting. We are reminded of editorial interventions, such as paraphrase and reordering of the narrative, even as they are justified on the grounds that “if we had faithfully mimicked the twists and turns of his language, the book would have made itself difficult to understand and excessively repetitive” (18). The paratext, then, itself a form of excess or supplement to the main text, exists to rein in the excesses of a different order that would otherwise disrupt any reading of the text. The tightrope or balancing act inherent in any testimonio becomes apparent, as it tries to remain faithful or true to its subject, without falling into the trap of becoming “excessively” so. Only a judicious pruning, or unfaithfulness to the source, can ensure that the text does not slip into incoherence or even nonsense.

Barnet’s introduction is interesting in that his relationship with Montejo seems to have been particularly complex, indeed verging on antagonistic–for all that he claims to have subdued or overcome Montejo’s original surliness. The anthropologist is eager to admit that “undoubtedly, many of his tales are not rigorously faithful to the facts. [. . .] His version is subjective. [. . .] It reflects our informant’s approach to things” (19). But this is less an admission of the testimonio’s weakness than an attempt to attest to its main strength. For unlike many similar narratives, Biografía de un cimarrón does not claim to be typical, or at least not in any simple sense. The very fact that Montejo was a runaway slave (who, we come to learn, spent much of his time alone, not trusting others) marks him out as different and distinct. Montejo is a renegade as much as or even more than he is a representative of nineteenth-century Cuba. But then that is because, Barnet implies, he is perhaps a man out of time: his “honesty,” his capacity to be true to himself (if not the facts), mark him as a “revolutionary” avant la lettre, even if his story never actually touches on Castro’s campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s. In the end, it is the fact that Montejo doesn’t entirely trust us, and is not entirely to be trusted in turn, that ensures less his tale’s veracity (because the truth doesn’t really matter) than its political charge.

Operación masacre

Operacion masacre

Argentine journalist Rodolfo Walsh’s Operación masacre is an investigation into the extra-judicial assassination, on the part of the Buenos Aires provincial police, of a group of men initially suspected to be part of a Peronist uprising on the night of June 9-10, 1956. As much as an account of what actually happened in the hours shortly before and after midnight on those dates, the book is also the story of the investigation itself. Walsh describes how he was initially reluctant to follow up on a rumor about the events he had picked up in a café, but then threw himself into the pursuit of the facts, driven by outrage at the authorities but above all by sympathy for those who had, against the odds, actually survived. He soon finds himself on what is effectively a crusade for recognition and justice, though he is aware of the price he may one day pay for the trouble he is perceived as causing. Indeed, much later, during the military dictatorship of the 1970s, Walsh’s voice is finally silenced when he is killed by soldiers in a confrontation in downtown Buenos Aires, his body dragged away to be burned and thrown in a river.

But Walsh evidently believes that the dangers inherent in seeking out the truth are more than merely personal. In the introduction to the first (1957) edition of the book, he writes that “too much truth can lead to madness, wiping out a people’s moral conscience.” But he goes on implicitly to welcome this eventuality: “One day the tragic history of the June killings will be written down in its entirety. And then we will see the shock overflow our borders” (265). The truth, in short, is something not to be taken lightly; its effects are collective and potentially catastrophic. But ultimately we should take the risk of the madness and destruction it brings with it. After all, he concludes: “I happen to believe, with complete earnestness and conviction, in the right of every citizen to share any truth that he comes to know, however dangerous that truth may be. And I believe in this book, in the impact it can have” (266).

But Walsh is not content simply to leave things there, as an ominous warning for the future. He himself does whatever he can to ensure that the murky details of this “tragic history,” still incomplete when he first publishes it in 1957, should in the end come out. A second and a third edition of the book come out in 1964 and 1969 respectively. Each time he feels that he has better pinpointed the chain of events and responsibility that led to these mostly innocent men having their lives ended or, if nothing else, transformed as they were grabbed from an informal gathering in a private house and finally gunned down in a (frankly, botched) execution on the outskirts of the city. But with each new edition of the book, one also feels increasing frustration and even despair on Walsh’s part as the officials he identifies as the guilty parties continue to evade any repercussions or consequences. In the end, as in the epilogue to the 1969 edition, Walsh’s tone becomes almost frantic and apocalyptic as he expands his frame of reference to “a portrait of the dominant oligarchy” and concludes that “within the system, there can be no justice” (299, 300).

In the first place, the problem is that the investigation threatens to become interminable. The truth “in its entirety” is not so easy to uncover. There are numerous points at which Walsh admits to doubt or uncertainty, in part because witnesses are absent or unreliable, or because their testimonies contradict each other. In the end, even relatively basic facts such as the number of men taken out to the killing zone elude him. The book’s opening paragraph has to admit that “We will never know it all” (31). There will always be a penumbra of doubt however dedicated the effort to ferret out the facts. And so, for all Walsh tries to give substance and materiality to events and participants, they remain strangely ghostly, just out of reach.

But there is a worse possibility: that Walsh may manage to uncover the truth, or enough of it that should count, and yet nothing might happen anyway. At one point in his enquiry, seeking to track down yet another survivor, he comes across a little girl in the street who tells him “The man you’re looking for [. . .] is in his house. They’ll tell you he isn’t, but he is.” To which Walsh replies: “And do you know why we’ve come?” Coolly, calmly, the girl responds: “Yes, I know everything.” And though we never find out this young girl’s name, Walsh gives her one: “OK, Cassandra” (24). For Cassandra was of course the Greek princess, daughter of Priam, who was blessed with the gift of prophetic knowledge but cursed (by Apollo) never to be believed. In fact, Walsh does believe this girl (and finds the man he is looking for as a result), but he must already be thinking of himself as a Cassandra figure, destined to reveal the truth but to no avail. No wonder at times (and increasingly as new editions come out), his prose becomes increasingly strained and reliant on rhetoric as though he were trying to compensate for the fact that the truth alone will never set us free.

For the real scandal is not so much the truth itself as the fact that truth-telling does not have quite the power that Walsh ascribes to it. Perhaps it isn’t all that dangerous. Perhaps “speaking truth to power” (as they say) only puts the truth-teller at risk. Or it may even be that when Walsh is finally gunned down, it is for something else entirely.