Some posts about the Andean novel, to go with a course by that name:
From the opening of Jorge Icaza’s novel Huasipungo, set in early twentieth-century Ecuador, the landowner, Alfonso Pereira, is presented as treading on precarious ground. He has stormed out of his house in bad humour, faced with problems that are both familial and financial: his daughter is pregnant with her indigenous boyfriend; and meanwhile he is also faced with debts and unpaid taxes. His head filled with these concerns, he is about to cross the street only to be nearly run over by a car that leaves him “trying to regain his balance on the edge of the pavement” (9). And indeed, the story that follows is the tale of Pereira’s attempts to “regain his balance” even if they involve ever-more extreme measures and grotesque abuses of the people who live on his land. Balance remains in short supply even at the end.
Pereira is presented as an almost comic character: flustered and maladroit; in over his head in the management of his family and his estate. But it is soon clear that there is a not-so-funny side to this cartoon buffoonery. On the advice of his uncle (and major creditor), Pereiras travels to his hacienda in the highlands, reluctant wife and daughter in tow, where he will, with yet more borrowed money, buy up land–and the indigenous that come with it–to build a road to the capital. The plan is to smooth the way for a firm of US prospectors, led by one “Mr Chapy,” who are apparently interested in extracting lumber from the interior–though in fact they are rather more keen on the possibility of drilling for oil. With the payout that ensues, Pereira hopes that his troubles will be at an end. And the novel shows that he will stop at nothing to ensure this happy resolution.
On the journey to the highlands, the road still as-yet unbuilt, Pereira and his family find themselves stymied by a muddy path that not even their mules can traverse. The landowner therefore calls on the indigenous servants, for them to become literally beasts of burden by carrying the Pereiras on their backs. Still persecuted by anxiety about his own troubles, and so utterly thoughtless of the weight he is placing on others’ shoulders, Pereira gives a start and causes the man carrying him to lose his footing and tumble to the ground. “Stupid Indian!” [“¡Indio pendejo!”], the master cries out “hopelessly” [“desesperado”], digging his spurs into the man’s ribs (14). His self-absorption and helplessness are hardly a joking matter now.
The name of the man who has to bear this humiliating punishment is Andrés Chiliquinga, and as the story unfolds he becomes exemplary of the suffering that the indigenous are forced to endure in the name of the landowner’s zeal to recover his economic balance, and of the gringos’ promise to bring modernization and development. Andrés first endures a horrific injury while helping to clear the land. Then his wife dies an agonizing death after eating the rotten meat that, with Pereira’s refusal to dole out the customary recompense for their otherwise unpaid labour, is all that the indigenous have to subsist on. And once the road is finally built, both he and his son die trying to protect their “huasipungo,” their small parcel of land, and its hut from being torn down to make room for the houses and offices that Mr Chapy proposes to build in their place.
In the face of all this oppression, the indigenous do not go down without a fight, rallying around the slogan “¡Ñucanchic huasipungo!”: “Our huasipungo.” And the final lines of the book suggests that this cry will resonate around the Andes. But here, at least, their cause is hopeless. But even in his victory, or perhaps especially in his victory, Pereira remains as precariously perched as ever: standing on a wall alongside Mr Chapy to look out over “the vast plain of the highlands” (113), he is once again carried away with emotion and ends up falling down once more amid “clouds of dust” to the laughter of his gringo companion (114). “We know not where we are treading” [“no sabemos donde pisamos”] is the moral he draws from this, which could be a reference to the subterranean deposits that have been driving this entire enterprise. But it may also be a delayed glimpse of the fact that, in clearing the indigenous from the land and speeding up the transition from feudalism to a capitalism dominated by foreign corporations, the hapless Pereira has simply been undermining the ground from under his own feet.
In trying to secure his position, he has achieved the opposite: he has destroyed his future by neglecting to recognize the immense indigenous contribution to the good fortune he has taken for granted. Now who will carry him through the mud?
Towards the end of Clorinda Matto de Turner’s Aves sin nido (1889), the mestizo couple Fernando and Lucía Marín, who are in effect the book’s heroes, because they are sufficiently enlightened to take pity on Peru’s indigenous peoples, are shown leaving the highland town of Kíllac where most of the novel’s plot is set. With them are two young indigenous girls, Margarita and Rosalía, their daughters who they are adopting because their parents have died, victims of violence stirred up by the town’s local authorities. There is no place for them in Kíllac, which is (as another character has declared, pages earlier) “barbaric” (49) and perhaps beyond salvation. If there is a future for the girls, it can only be in Lima, the nation’s capital and “antechamber of Heaven” from which can be glimpsed “the throne of Glory and Fortune” (80). Just as much to the point, moreover, is the fact that the Maríns themselves are hardly safe in the Andes. It was their efforts on behalf of the indigenous that provoked the disturbance in which the girls’ parents were killed. It’s time to get out of Dodge.
Along the way, headed for the train that is to be both the vehicle of their escape and potent symbol of the modernity that Kíllac so notably lacks, Fernando and Lucía mull over the dramatic events that have led them to this point. “What do you think of the things that happen?” the wife asks her husband. “I’m stunned just thinking back over the coincidences,” he replies. “Ah! Life is a novel” (140).
But life is not, of course, a novel. And when characters within a novel are made to protest otherwise, rather than heightening the realism of the events depicted, such claims instead undercut it by reminding us that it is, after all, a literary construction that we hold in our hands. The fact that the book needs to tell us that life can assume the shape of a novel is a sure sign that somehow it is failing to show us convincingly that the tale it tells is lifelike. Here, indeed, it is as though Matto de Turner were trying to prepare us for the hardly plausible plot twist with which her book ends. For it turns out that Margarita, too, is mestiza; her true father, as divulged in her mother’s dying breath, is Kíllac’s former parish priest. Worse still, her suitor, a young man named Manuel who is following along behind the family and hopes to ask the Maríns for their adopted daughter’s hand in marriage, turns out to be hiding the very same secret: he too is the lascivious priest’s bastard offspring. The would-be newly-weds are brother and sister! And with the revelation of that shocking coincidence, worthy as much of a telenovela as of a novel, the book’s plot eventually comes grinding to a halt. After all, novels end even if life has to go on.
Yet perhaps there is something lifelike (and indeed, not very novelistic) about this story’s strange and rather abrupt conclusion. For novels customarily end with some kind of resolution: a birth, a death, or a wedding, for instance. By refusing such a tidy ending, by ensuring through the scarcely believable device of making her young lovers siblings that there will be no marriage here, Matto de Turner is perhaps highlighting the artificiality of the novel form. Aves sin nido is true to life, and to Peru’s “Indian problem,” in its final recognition that it has no pat answers. Heaven can wait, as the glimpse of the throne of Glory is snatched away.
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.”
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).
See also: Testimonio and the Politics of Truth.
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.
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.