“Patriarchy: From the Margins to the Center”

Cross-posted to Virtual Koerner’s.

It has been observed that the higher up a corporate hierarchy you look, the more likely it is you will find a psychopath. Indeed, in an article in Forbes (of all places) we read that “Roughly 4% to as high as 12% of CEOs exhibit psychopathic traits, according to some expert estimates, many times more than the 1% rate found in the general population and more in line with the 15% rate found in prisons.” The same article also reports that “the top four career choices for psychopaths are CEO, attorney, media personality and salesperson.” In other words, there is a congruence between psychopathic personality traits and some of the key institutions of contemporary society: business, the Law, the media, and commerce. So much for psychopathy being an “antisocial” disorder. It is part of the very fabric of the world we live in.

segato_guerraIn her chapter, “Patriarchy: From the Margins to the Center” (from La guerra contra las mujeres [2017]), Rita Segato goes further. We are all trained to be psychopaths now, she tells us, as part of a “pedagogy of cruelty” that is the “nursery for psychopathic personalities that are valorized by the spirit of the age and functional for this apocalyptic phase of capitalism” (102). Segato presents a brief reading of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange to make her point, though what she sees as “most extraordinary” about the film is that the shock with which it was received when it came out (in 1971) now seems to have almost totally dissipated. What was once taken as itself an almost psychopathic assault on the viewer’s senses is now just another movie; this shift in our sensibility is “a clear indication [. . .] of the naturalization of the psychopathic personality and of violence” (102). The narcissistic “ultra-violence” of the gang of dandies that the film portrays is now fully incorporated within the social order that it once seemed to threaten.

For Segato, moreover, this psychopathic violence to which we are increasingly inured is ultimately gender violence: it both establishes and is grounded upon what she elsewhere terms a “mandate of masculinity” by which masculine identity and at the same time both the public sphere and the state is inscribed on and at the expense of women’s bodies. Moreover, all this is folded into a “decolonial” perspective that does not claim that indigenous social structure were free of sexism or patriarchy, but which argues that Western modernity transformed what were once gender relations characterized by reciprocity into a binary system from which empathy is absent and woman are treated as things on which male narcissism inscribes itself.

In short, Segato offers a grand theory of human society and epochal history, at the root of which is (almost) always and everywhere violence against women. As she puts it: “Buried down below, at the foundation, at the foot of the pyramid, sustaining the entire edifice, a woman’s body” (97). As even the reference to a pyramid suggests, confirmed by the frequent invocation of diverse folktales and origin narratives from wildly different contexts, all this adds up to a kind of mythic anthropology that (for all the glancing citations of contemporary theorists such as Judith Butler) has a nineteenth-century feel to it. Indeed, there is a tension between the universalizing gestures on the one hand (an appeal to transhistorical ways of knowing and being), and the attempt to periodize and draw out specificities and differences on the other. Are we all psychopaths now, or is there something psychopathic inherent to modernity? At times, Segato seems to want to have it both ways. Equally, I’m not particularly convinced by her calls to feminine (and indigenous) empathy and reciprocity as modes of resistance to the increasingly violent structure of everyday life, not least because (despite her protests otherwise) all this does indeed sound very much like a form of essentialism.

For me, the parts of Segato’s analysis are very much more interesting and provocative than the whole. I don’t think that we need buy into the (quasi) cosmic unity of her over-arching vision to appreciate the very important ways in which she contributes to our understanding of the mechanisms of gender violence, for instance, not least in her specific studies of cases such as the femicides in Northern Mexico. Even if we see society less as a pyramid (with its base and superstructure) and more as a network or web, Segato’s analyses help us see in new ways how everything is connected, both to ensure the reproduction of forms of domination across many axes, and to offer hope that local resistances can have broad and unexpected repercussions throughout the system. The center has permeated the margins: there are few if any spaces of refuge, and certainly no pre-lapsarian community to which one might fantasize a return. But at the same time, the margins continue to haunt the center: multiplicity is everywhere.

“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.

Contrabando

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Víctor Hugo Rascón Banda’s Contrabando tells the story of a playwright and scriptwriter living in Mexico City, much like Rascón Banda himself, who returns to his childhood home of Santa Rosa in the northern state of Chihuahua. He has to write a script, and what better place than this remote former mining village? “You’ll be able to rest, sleep in as long as you like, far from the hubbub of that awful metropolis,” his mother promises him in a letter. “You’ll have the time to write, uninterrupted.” And her son agrees: “here, where there is no electricity or telephone, I can stumble upon the ghosts that become characters and the rumors that turn into plots. All I have to do is go down to the river and listen to the washerwomen [. . .] or pop into the billiard hall and see how the balls run into each other on the green felt to break the tedium” (24).

What the narrator discovers, however, is anything but a rural idyll. It turns out that “death arrived in Santa Rosa, and now it doesn’t want to leave” (97). The place is full of ghosts all right, as well as characters, rumors, and plots. But whatever story he hopes to write is constantly interrupted by other stories, of violence, revenge, and betrayal, that urgently need telling but somehow cannot (yet) be told.

One after another, the tales that this book tells reveal a reality that has yet to make its way to the capital. “There they know nothing,” says one of the first people that the narrator meets, a woman called Damiana Caraveo, on the road to Santa Rosa. Caraveo is described as “the very image of a mournful death, or of the soul in pain of a woman still unburied” (12). Learning that she is talking to a writer (though disappointed that he doesn’t write corridos, the popular songs of the region), she bids his attention: “Just look, though they should know. Here in the Sierra, something bad happened, a whole lot of killing or whatever you want to call it” (12-13). And she proceeds to describe a skirmish in which twenty-four people (including most of her family) were killed, for which she was framed and then jailed as the putative leader of a drug-trafficking gang. Yet having told her side of things, Caraveo wonders why she has bothered: “As for my version of what happened [. . .] why am I telling it, what’s the point? Who’s going to believe me?” (22). And yet she carries on with her narrative, as though in the vain hope that there may be someone to hear her.

Indeed, the stories tumble out, twenty-three of them in total, like a chain reaction: each title picking up on a phrase from the sentence of the story that precedes it. So the final line in Camaveo’s tale is “I remembered the reasons for my voyage,” and the next story is “The Reasons for my Voyage,” which ends with the declaration “I am Jacinta, Jacinta Primera,” in turn setting up the story “Jacinta Primera.” And so on, until the last word of the final tale, which is “contrabando,” looping us back to the title of the book itself.

The various segments of this tightly woven chain, however, often take very diverse forms, with a host of different narrators or none at all: there are first-person narratives, testimonio-style, in the voice of rural peasants; there are the diary-like accounts of the Mexico City scriptwriter, the apparently autobiographical presence of Rascón Banda himself; there is dialogue, stream of consciousness, an open letter “to whom it may concern” that turns out to be a suicide note; there is a playscript, and ultimately also a filmscript, apparently the text that the narrator came to Santa Rosa to write. Each one is laced with the fear, uncertainty, and tragedy of a world in which everyday life has been turned upside down by new flows of capital, new fluctuations of allegiance, and new forms of killing as the drug trade takes hold.

Running through the disparate vignetts are some narrative repetitions and continuities. In particular, we follow the disjoint mystery of the narrator’s cousin, Julián, the town’s mayor, who has disappeared a couple of days before the writer arrives. It looks increasingly as though he has been kidnapped. But by whom? The traffickers or the police? The problem is that it is hard to distinguish the two. Sometimes, in the aftermath of one incident or another, you cannot tell if those involved were “narcos with police ID or police disguised as narcos” (87). And whether for reasons of subtefuge, betrayal, or a pragmatic attempt to survive in an increasingly slippery social landscape, people shift between the different sides such that it is misleading to talk even of “sides” at all: “Nobody knew who was who, local or stranger, poor or rich, narco or authority” (103) But everyone is someone; nobody can escape. Though we never learn Julián’s fate, and he and the narrator never cross paths, at one point it is suggested that the writer’s arrival, even though it took place after his cousin’s disappearance, was somehow to blame:

Julián’s kidnapping, said my uncle grasping me by an arm, has to do with you and these papers. [. . .] Worse still, he added in a serious voice, looking me in the eyes, we could say that you are in part guilty of what happened to Julián. No, not in part, he corrected himself, you are the sole reason why my son is disappeared. Why the Hell did you have to come and screw us over, if we were at peace here. (112)

In the insistent chain of reasons and causes, the narrator suddenly finds himself bound fast. Like everyone else, he is unknowingly responsible in a world in which agency is everything, because you have to be continually on your toes, even as it is steadily annuled by force of circumstance. As Damiana Caraveo observes, “When things are going to happen, there’s no way to stop them” (17). Caught up in what is repeatedly described as a “nightmare,” Rascón Banda comes to partake in a generalized condition of responsibility without power, guilt without either intent or the possibility of redemption.

At the end of the book the final vignette is a coda, written (we are told) three months after the narrator has left town, having departed only by the skin of his teeth as his driver ran a roadblock and soldiers fired on their car. With his right hand in a cast, he has to write with his left, telling anyone who asks about his injuries that he’s been bitten by a caterpillar, “the kind they have in the Sierra” (208). Meanwhile he receives another letter from his mother, this one much less sanguine than the one that originally invited him home for rest and uninterrupted writing. “I don’t want you to set foot in this town again,” she says. “Here nobody knows who is who. [. . .] Damiana Caraveo is right when she says that you look like a narco or a policeman, which in any case is the same thing. What’s more, you dress like them. It’s not worth you running the risk.” Finally, she tells her son to “Forget what you saw and heard here. Pretend that it was nothing more than a bad dream” (209). And in response the narrator tells us that he “will burn everything that I wrote in Santa Rosa, that’s what I promised my mother” (210).

What is more, it seems that the person who commissioned the screenplay that first motivated the journey north does not much like it: he wanted a love story, rather than a narco revenge narrative. The playscript finds better success: the piece will be put on in Mexico City’s chic Zona Rosa, with a mechanical scenography that will produce “real waves” that the audience can actually touch. Yet the narrator hardly believes this will happen: “They say that in the theatre, plans fall through and never become reality” (211). So Rascón Banda ends the book telling us that, so he can “forget Santa Rosa,” all that remains is for him to type up (literally, “mechanize”; “pasar a máquina”) the lyrics of the corridos that will be played in the show. As Sophie Esch observes, “The man of letters is no longer a writer, just a copyist” (“In the Crossfire: Rascón Banda’s Contrabando and the ‘Narcoliterature’ Debate in Mexico” 172). The rest is silence. Except that the last word takes us back to the book’s title and the sequence starts up once more, like some hellish Groundhog Day replaying the dissolution of the letrado subject in the webs of drug war violence.

In the end, Rascón Banda does and does not keep his narrator’s promise to his mother (and himself) to forget all he has seen and burn all he has written in Santa Rosa. The manuscript of Contrabando won the prestigious Juan Rulfo prize for a first novel in 1991. Yet the book was not published for almost two decades, until after its author’s death in 2008. By the time it belatedly appeared, at the height of President Felipe Calderón’s ill-conceived war on the cartels, the level of drug violence in Mexico had exponentially increased, and the scale of the killing was such that it could no longer be ignored or denied. Perhaps stories like Damiana Caraveo’s could finally be told and find an audience. Or perhaps it is that now the entire country finds itself in the bind of disempowered responsibility that Rascón Banda describes, caught in a deadly cycle of causes and consequences that has no clear endpoint.

The Long Night of White Chickens

Too many novels in English about Latin America are disappointing. Sometimes that is because they try too hard to mimic the magical realism that is supposed to be the signature trait of the region’s literary culture. An egregious example would be Louis de Bernières’s “comic” first novel, The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts. Other times the problem is that the writer over-earnestly tries to show the impact of political violence on men and women who are portrayed as pure victims, nobly struggling for their rights until they are senselessly cut down by state terror. In the Belly of the Horse leans in this direction. Either way, such representations portray the region in terms of simple alterity: exotic or abject.

goldman_long-nightFrancisco Goldman’s The Long Night of White Chickens dodges both traps, even though its title seems to promise some kind of sub-García Márquez fare and its theme, a murder investigation at the height of Guatemala’s dirty war, might indicate anguished pleas for social justice. But it turns out that the “long night of the white chickens” is something of a MacGuffin, a plot device to incite intrigue that ultimately does not really matter in itself. The plot’s focus constantly shifts, as rumors swirl and hopes are raised and then dashed in a country in which (we are repeatedly told) everything is uncertain and nobody is to be trusted. And in some ways even the murder that drives so much of the narrative is a red herring. Classic detective stories tell the tale of social order disrupted by violent death and then restored by means of the private eye’s rational deductions and clear-sighted refusal to be deceived or distracted. Here, we come to see that solving the murder mystery would bring us no closer to resolving the problem of Guatemala’s endemic violence, corruption, and chaos. If anything, the investigation only makes things worse. So we are not surprised that at the end, when the truth that he has long been seeking appears finally to be in sight, the narrator simply gives up and goes home.

Yet the concept of “home” is complicated in Goldman’s book. The narrator in question, Roger Graetz, is the son of a Guatemalan mother and a (Jewish) American father, who grows up near Boston but is regularly sent down to take summer school in a private academy in Guatemala City. The murder victim, Flor de Mayo Puac, takes an opposite trajectory: plucked from a Guatemalan orphanage by Graetz’s maternal grandmother, she is raised with Roger in New England in an uncertain role that is neither exactly family member nor precisely maid; she returns to Guatemala where she comes to direct an orphanage of her own, but after her death Roger and his father take her body to be buried in the USA. It is then the third of the trio of major characters who is the most fully Guatemalan: Luis Moya was once a friend of Roger’s at the academy, becomes a celebrated but controversial journalist, gets to know Flor shortly before her death and helps Roger in his quest to track down her killer but even he cannot stay as in the end he is forced into exile in Mexico. Indeed, with its running themes of travel, adoption, migration, and exile, the novel puts dislocation center stage and asks us to consider the relations between these different forms of displacement.

My student Upasana Thakkar has recently finished a dissertation in which she comments on the links between this novel and the testimonio genre. Guatemala is, after all, the land of Rigoberta Menchú. And among the travellers to Guatemala are a procession of “Sweet Sisters of Solidarity” (323), such as the “singular and exceptional Laura Moore” who would return home “with her suitcases packed with the cassette recordings and typed testimonies of victims who [. . .] no matter how much their tragic tales resembled the hundreds of others Laura had already discreetly listened to and transcribed, always made actual warm tears slide down from her reddened blue eyes” (375). This is the easy affect that Goldman tries to avoid. He is skeptical about how much you can learn about someone and their situation simply from letting them speak–and asks us who benefits from such displays of solidarity.

The titular “long night of the white chickens,” for instance, turns out to refer to an evening of intense conversation between Moya and Flor. Over dinner and rum at a Chinese restaurant, the two of them seem to share intimate confidences, as Moya employs all his highly-honed listening skills: “detective, anthropologist, father confessor, and seducer all at once” (374). But when they get up to leave, after the other diners have gone home and as the restaurant receives its late-night delivery of live chickens for the next day’s meals, Flor tells Moya: “It was scary in a way, kind of awful, playing along with you like that. Pretending to tell you everything. I ended up feeling all on the surface” (399). No connection can be trusted; everything is an act.

Without ever relativizing or attempting to excuse away the violence (and thankfully, the novel has very little in the way of political moralizing or grandstanding), Goldman suggests a complex web of complicities in which purity and innocence are inevitably illusions. Moya only half-jokingly tells Flor that she “will make a wonderful saint” (275), and at first glance she is the pristine subaltern victim, brutally murdered when her only crime is to be seeking a better life for her unfortunate charges. But by the end we might be starting to think (however guiltily) that in some way she brought her fate upon herself. That is, if it is not Moya himself, fiercely independent journalist and one of the few in the country who dares to speak truth to power, who might prove indirectly responsible thanks to a brief lapse in his careful self-regulation. As for Roger, who betrays Moya in his youth by backing out of a dare that was supposed to seal the friendship between the two of them, he is an ambivalent figure, milquetoast and self-involved, whose feelings towards Flor are thoroughly conflicted: part guilt, part adoration, part quasi-incestuous desire.

There is a lot to this novel, whose plot shifts between narrative points of view and across a series of non-linear jumps forwards and backwards in time, governed by memory, conversation, nostalgia, but also a thriller writer’s deft handling of suspense. Yet this formal complexity also obscures the fact that in some ways very little happens in it. Indeed, often what does not happen turns out to be more significant than what does: it is structured by a succession of missed opportunities and oversights, trails that go nowhere as well as connections that cannot be established. Its repeated refrain is the phrase that Moya takes from a French thriller and passes on to Roger, somewhere between shallow witticism and deep regret: “Guatemala doesn’t exist.” To which is sometimes (but not always) added: “and I know, because I have been there” (27). There is no “there” there, otherness is a product of the imagination, and yet only painful experience ratifies a nebulous nothingness that cannot quite be pinned down.

Meanwhile, time marches on, for the book’s temporal trickery cannot fully negate the fact that time passes and there is no going back. Towards the end, Roger finds himself on a cross-country bus, but is repeatedly indecisive about where he will get off and so extends his ticket over and over until the bemused conductor pronounces him “more lost than the Wandering Jew” (426). At the end of the book, he is still lost, still in movement, but perhaps a little less deceived about the virtues of undeception.

In the Belly of the Horse

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Eliana Tobias’s In the Belly of the Horse chronicles the aftermath of Peru’s civil war of the 1980s and 1990s. It opens with a scene in a small village in the northern highlands, as the Shining Path guerrilla approach and a father seeks to take his seven-year-old son (Salvador) to safety, leaving his wife to look after their property until he can return. But he never comes back, and the novel chronicles the fate of this splintered family over the following fifteen to twenty years.

Salvador and his father are soon separated, and we are left guessing as to the latter’s fate for most of the narrative that follows. The boy, however, makes his way to the nearest large town (Cajamarca) where he falls in with another homeless child, a girl called Lucía who shows him how to make a precarious living on the streets, begging or stealing food and sleeping at night in the local cemetery. Later Salvador manages to track down his uncle (his mother’s brother), who takes him in and arranges for his education when the two of them subsequently move to the national capital, Lima.

Gradually, Salvador finds his feet and even thrives, getting a job as a policeman and meeting and marrying a psychologist (Carmen) who works for the postwar Truth and Reconciliation Commission. At first his uncle warns him against looking too hard for his missing parents. His fear is that the boy will come under suspicion for having too great an interest in the fate of people tainted with association with “terrorism,” as so many were in the highlands even when they were in fact the victims of guerrilla action. But as time goes on, and at the urging of his wife, he becomes increasingly involved in the search for the truth of what happened not only to his own parents, but also to the tens of thousands more who died or were displaced during the conflict.

Meanwhile, in parallel, we also follow the tracks of Salvador’s mother, Otilia, as she first seeks refuge in a remote mining encampment and later migrates to the United States. She, too, cannot put out of her mind her missing family members. And likewise she becomes involved in broader efforts to seek information and gain justice for those affected by state violence and bureaucratic obfuscation, joining a church-based group with representatives from places such as Chile and Guatemala. She even returns to Peru, making affidavits and chasing down what few leads she has to trace her missing husband and son, but to no avail.

Ultimately (and this is a spoiler, but no great surprise to the reader), Salvador and Otilia are reunited, and he meets her in her new home in California, but this is not until almost the very end of the book, which then ends rather abruptly: he returns to Lima, but she stays in the USA, only to visit at Christmas when she convinces her son to lay a stone in his (still) missing father’s name at a monument for the disappeared.

Overall, mother and son are together in this book for only about twenty-five of its 260 pages. Indeed, the family group (parents plus child) has already broken up by page three. And there is little attempt to reconstruct memories of when it had been whole. So what is lost is somehow intangible; we are led to feel very keenly that something is missing, but it is never quite clear what that something may have been. When Salvador and Otilia are together once more at last, their relationship is charged with uncertainty and distance. There is, after all, no going back, even if either of them were able to recall what they might be going back to. They are not the same people that they once were. If anything, what most unites them is this shared sense of loss that should notionally disappear once they have found each other. So perhaps the only way for them to maintain that connection is by denying, in part, that they have really been found. In other words, they paradoxically need to hold on to their loss in order to overcome it.

Indeed, distance and misconnection predominate throughout the novel. Almost every relationship that the two characters establish in the interim, while they await their predestined re-encounter, is somehow incomplete or unsatisfactory. On Salvador’s part, for instance, he is never really close to his uncle, while Lucía remains remote and unapproachable right until she comes to her own untimely end. Even his marriage is characterized by strikingly stilted conversation, as he and his wife swap talking points more often than they exchange intimacies: “Salvador knew well how hard it was to seek restorative justice and he worried that Carmen might be pushed to the edge. ‘Stories like theirs must be told,’ she said, smiling weakly” (203). In fact, the prose throughout the novel tends to be wooden, as though to remind us that none of the characters ever feels particularly comfortable with their lot: everyone is portrayed as though they were consistently on edge, awkward and unsettled.

In short, this book is not an easy read. It has few pretensions to literariness or lyricism. Even the title, which promises to carry some kind of metaphorical or allegorical import, turns out to have a surprisingly literal meaning: as a child, Salvador was briefly hidden by his father inside the belly of an eviscerated horse. But perhaps all this points to one of the book’s (inadvertent) virtues: its portrayal of violence and alienation as mundane and even banal, devoid of any deeper meaning, but no less traumatic for all that.

K

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The title of Bernardo Kucinski’s K immediately invokes Kafka, and its content mirrors in many ways his most famous novel, The Trial. “Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K.” is Kafka’s famous opening line, and in K, likewise, lies are more common than truth as Kucinski’s eponymous protagonist, K, probes the workings of the Brazilian state under the dictatorship of 1964-85.

K here is an older Jewish writer and scholar of Yiddish, a long-settled immigrant who arrived in Brazil back in the 1930s, fleeing Nazi persecution in his native Poland where he had been active in Zionist socialism. In São Paulo he has built a rather more sedate life, raising a family and above all immersing himself in literature and conversation with fellow writers. Until one day in 1974 he discovers that his adult daughter, who teaches Chemistry at the university, has disappeared, presumably taken by the Brazilian secret services. The book then traces his patient but increasingly hopeless struggle to track her down, or at least to find out what has happened to her. But all he hears are lies: not so much lies about him, as the lies that everyone is telling to him about his daughter’s fate and whether anyone can ever help him reconstruct it.

Unlike Kafka’s K, moreover, Kucinski’s is not so much caught up within the bureaucratic machinery of the state as consistently shut out from it. He notes that “The State is faceless and impassive, impervious and perverse. Its only weak point is corruption. But sometimes even access this way becomes impossible, on orders from above. And then the State becomes doubly malignant–cruel and unapproachable” (8). Well respected in his community, and even fairly well-known outside of it, K tries to pull whatever strings he can, tirelessly seeking out informers and allies in Brazil and beyond. But if the state is corrupt, it is not so for him.

Indeed, the closest K gets to the state bureaucracy, his “one and only contact with the justice system” (133), is when he is invited to a hearing of the Tribunal of Military Justice to witness the trial of a sergeant who had posed as a general in order to extort money from him for the (false) promise of information. The court comes down harshly on the rogue officer, who is stripped of his rank, jailed, and dismissed from the military on the grounds of “damaging the reputation of the Armed Forces by spreading the false information that civilians were detained in military installations for criminal purposes.” K then jumps up to ask about his daughter, only for the presiding judge to bang his gavel and declare: “The records show that no civilian is held in military installations. As the convicted prisoners’ confession demonstrates, it was all a charade” (136). So the right verdict (the sergeant really was an imposter; he could never have delivered what he claimed) serves only to uphold the much larger injustices of forced disappearance and torture.

The curious thing about the authoritarian state, at least in Kucinski’s account, is that it is both everywhere and nowhere. It is everywhere in that it is unavoidable: K is surprised to learn of the extent of its network of informers who pervade everyday life and include a familiar window-dresser and the owner of the local bakery; he wonders whether they had always been there, and it was just that “when the government was more tolerant it used the informers less” (21). But the state is nowhere in that it seems to keep no records, leave no trace: K notes that “even the Nazis, who had reduced their victims to ashes, had registered the dead. [. . .] There hadn’t been this agony of uncertainty” (14). It is as though the state were some kind of barely visible mist, which saturated social space but could never be pinned down or pictured.

All this raises a problem for the novel: how to represent something that to steadfastly evades representation. Kucinski’s solution to this problem is to give us a montage of points of view: though K is very clearly the key figure, there are also chapters that present the perspectives of his missing daughter (who K soon finds he did not much know, either), her husband, their torturers, the mistress of the chief of the so-called “Department for Political and Social Order” that is responsible for their fate, and so on. In other words, though the author tells us that “everything in this book is invented but almost everything happened” (169), and indeed the case presented here is very closely modelled on the disappearance of his sister, Ana Rosa Kucinski, he uses fictional license to depict what is strictly unknowable. This is perhaps most strikingly evident in the book’s account of a faculty meeting called to fire the daughter (following her disappearance) from her university post for “dereliction of duties.” As each committee member speaks, we are repeatedly told “We don’t know what was going through his mind. We can only guess” (138) or “We can imagine what was running through his head” (139) and so on, at which point the text proceeds to fill the silence, to flesh out the hollow center of inscrutable thoughts and actions around which this entire book revolves.

Unlike in Kafka, then, where the reader is left almost as frustrated and at a loss as the character, Joseph K, here the reader is given the clues at least to reconstruct the history that will forever leave Kucinski’s K guessing (and grieving). It is suggested, for instance, that K’s daughter ultimately committed suicide by biting on a cyanide capsule rather than giving in to torture and giving up her friends. Yet we must accept that this can only be a (more or less) consoling fiction, a lie of sorts, which inadvertently covers up what is truly shocking about K’s story: that it can never really be complete.

Cartucho

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).

2022 La guerra del gallo

In some ways there is nothing more real than armed conflict–it is after all a matter of life and death. But in other ways there is nothing more surreal, more phantasmatic. And if one literary response to warfare emphasizes its grim materiality (think, say, of Erich Maria Remarque’s All’s Quiet on the Western Front), another stresses the absurd: Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Likewise, it may seem odd to think that one of the best-loved TV shows of the twentieth century portrayed the Korean War with canned laughter, but that was exactly what M*A*S*H did. War: it makes us laugh as well as making us cry.

Juan Guinot, 2022 La guerra del gallo

While Juan Guinot’s debut novel 2022 La guerra del gallo isn’t perhaps as funny as he thinks or hopes it is, it certainly makes hay with the absurdity of war. And the second half especially has all the (il)logic of a rather bad dream. Indeed, I was more than half-expecting that that’s how the book would end: with the revelation that the titular “war of the cock” was nothing but the febrile fantasy of a protagonist whose grasp of reality is tenuous throughout.

It’s another commonplace to note that war drives us mad; that even if we were once lucid, the experience of battle is enough to make us lose our mind. Today, the medicalization of this effect goes by the name of PTSD; in other times, it was known as shell shock. The difference with Masi, Guinot’s (anti-)hero, is that he goes crazy not because he has seen war up close and person, but because he hasn’t. He is an adolescent at the time that the Falklands/Malvinas conflict breaks out, and though he eagerly signs up to fight as a patriotic Argentine, “to his dismay the [call-up] letter never arrived, the war ended sooner than anticipated, and the final result of the conflict was so disastrous that it left him shocked and he started to show all the signs of an ex-non-combatant; he saw Englishmen everywhere” (27). Traumatized by Argentina’s defeat, and above all that he could play no part in it, he therefore vows personal revenge against the colonial power of the English “pirates” whom he blames for all his ills.

Masi’s obsessive preparations for the future war of triumphant vengeance are at times no more than faintly ludicrous: he stalks the suburban rail services for spies, for instance, and when he finds one (identified by the fact that he’s wearing a “Kiss” t-shirt), he follows him, shouting at him to “go home” to the annoyance of the so-called spy and his fellow-passengers alike. But more often he is frankly deranged, and ultimately he (literally) gives his father a heart attack when, on receiving as a present a small styrofoam globe, he shouts out “I have the world in my hand. Now they won’t stop me. [. . .] English bastards, I’m make them shit fire” (52). Then, kneeling over his father’s corpse, Masi pledges “My victory will be yours” (53).

Unsurprisingly, the boy is carted off to a mental hospital. Equally unsurprisingly, he believes this to be a dastardly trick of Anglo-Saxon imperialism. In any case, decades pass and he is still far from cured when, in late 2021, he finally escapes his imprisonment and, with globe in hand and balaclava on head, he sets off on his new mission: to liberate the Rock of Gibraltar.

The world has changed by 2022 and here the object of Guinot’s satire shifts. For it turns out that everyone in this dystopian near future is effectively deranged and has lost the power to distinguish between reality and the imagination, the real and the symbolic. For the War of the Cock ends up being a dispute between France and Portugal in which two Dr Strangelove types, one on either side, decide to launch missiles against each other. This is the result of a deadly televised reality show in which boxers from the two nations brawl for the exclusive claim to their shared national symbol, now sponsored by a nefarious mega-corporation called BioCorp.

In the middle of the mayhem, and as the collective eyes of the world remain glued to their TV screens, Masi makes his way through Spain on a deserted train in the company of a stray dog with apparently supernatural powers. (There is much magic in the book; Guinot would have been better advised to leave it out.) And in the final dénouement he does indeed manage to expunge the stain of Argentine defeat forty years previously, by expelling the English from Gibraltar and raising the Argentine flag on top of the Rock. But the pity is that almost nobody notices. By 2022 if it doesn’t happen on television (and Masi’s antics don’t), then it might as well not have happened at all.

It would be hard to accuse Guinot’s book of subtlety or even of much sophistication. But then that’s perhaps partly the point. War is stupid, he’s telling us, and it makes fools of us all, whether we are doing the fighting or not. On the other hand, this novel is often so farcical that it makes one pine for at least a little of the bloody materiality that Guinot suggests we have forgotten in our militaristic obsessions. After all, the strange thing is that this is a war book in which there are barely any casualties: the French and Portuguese missiles collide midway in the heavens with little damage done, as the entire population of southern Spain is hunkered down in their bunkers to watch TV; at the end, the only victims are Gibraltar’s Barbary apes, who collectively leap to their deaths in the Mediterranean. If this were the only idiocy of war, then surely there wouldn’t be much to fear.

War

Robert Capa

A collection of posts on war, in connection with a course on armed conflict in the Hispanic world:

Un día en la vida

Un día en la vida

“Books were always being written differently from how one spoke” muses the narrator of Manlio Argueta’s Un día en la vida/One Day of Life (110/141). But not this one, perhaps. It’s a novel based on interviews with Salvadoran peasants and it abounds with the country’s typical linguistic forms, such as the use of “vos.” It also features characteristic words and expressions that include “cipote” for kid, “chucho” for dog, “chele” for blond or light-skinned, not to mention a whole range of terms for the flora and fauna of the countryside. Indeed, in interview, Argueta responds to a question about his “particular use of Salvadoran vernacular” with the comment that “it is a way of promoting the oral language as our own wealth [. . .]. I do this to reaffirm our own values, local values, so as to know that we exist.” Just as the book’s title asserts the particular within the general, the specific day within a much broader life, so the book’s language is unapologetically local, tied to a place that is not simply El Salvador as a whole but more specifically still rural El Salvador, here the department of Chalatenango in the country’s north, near the Honduran border.

To reproduce the forms of speech of the rural poor is also unmistakably a political choice, not least at the point at which the book was published, in 1980. It’s not simply (indeed, hardly at all) a matter of cultural nationalism. Rather it is one of the country’s most distinguished writers and intellectuals (he is now head of the National Library) affirming the vitality and expressive capacity of a whole social stratum that had been marginalized and oppressed, abused to the point of either breaking or exploding. For this is also a novel that comes from a very particular point in time: just before the formation of the FMLN, an alliance of various armed groups, and the outbreak of revolutionary insurrection. In the decade or more or civil war that would follow, up until the peace accords of 1992, Chalatenango would forever be one of the areas where the guerrilla had most support and freedom of maneuver. It was a “liberated zone” almost from the start, ideal terrain for guerrilla warfare. To some extent, this book is Argueta’s contribution to the combat.

This novel anticipates the war to come. As Gareth Williams notes, it is “the narrativization of an impending insurrection whose violence is arranged around collective martyrdom, sacrifice, and rapture as will-to-power” (The Other Side of the Popular 192). We hear the age-old history of the abuses that the peasants receive from the landlords and their hired men, not to mention the myriad other “authorities” with their posturing machismo and absolute disdain. We see, moreover, a gradual escalation of violence: the peasants are slowly gaining consciousness (“conciencia”) of their exploitation and refusing to dismiss it as one of life’s many sufferings; they are beginning to agitate and organize in more formal ways to claim their “rights,” encouraged by a new set of priests inspired by liberation theology. In response, the authorities respond ever more brutally, trying (at times quite literally) to dismember the body of the campesinado and stick it in the ass to the priests.

The crunch comes when the novel’s protagonist and dominant voice, Lupe, is faced with the mangled remains of her husband, Chepe, more dead than alive, who is dragged to her door for her to confirm his identity. Seeking to protect herself, her family, and her neighbours, as well as in honour of a pledge she has made to Chepe in the past, she constrains her emotions and denies that she knows him. What follows is her grand-daughter’s vision of a grotesque counter-violence, of the corpse of one of the soldiers who has been tormenting them: “His eyes and his mouth were open, and no matter how much they tried to shut his eyelids they would open again, and no matter how much they pulled on his big toes, his mouth would not close” (166/215). Lupe fears that this is a nightmare, but her grand-daughter articulates the logic of the novel when she tells us that it is anything but.