Jean Franco

It must have been late 1989 or early 1990 that I first met Jean Franco, the distinguished and pioneering Latin Americanist literary and cultural critic, who has just died at 98 years old.

I was taking a year out from my undergraduate degree, crossing the USA en route to Central America, and at the same time checking out universities to which I thought I might apply to do graduate work.

Finding myself in New York, I headed to Columbia, and made my way to the Department of English where I hoped to meet Edward Said, a founder of postcolonial studies. Professor Said was not available, I was told, but would I like to talk to Professor Franco, who co-taught with him on the MA program?

I remember next to nothing about that conversation, but I must have (presumptuously) left her something of mine to read, or posted it to her later, because the following year, when I was back in the UK, I received a postcard from her. She apologized for taking so long, but she had (amazingly) read whatever it was that I had written and offered some brief, polite comments on it.

It was only much later that I realized just who Jean Franco was: one of the first critics to put the study of Latin American literature on the map, at least in the English-speaking world, with books such as The Modern Culture of Latin America (1967) and An Introduction to Latin American Literature (1969), whose range of reference and erudition, but also enthusiasm and clarity, remain impressive even today.

Once I was in the United States (first at Milwaukee then in North Carolina), I would often pass through New York, where I would regularly (and again, presumptuously) call Jean up and we would go for a walk, a coffee, perhaps lunch. She was always and indefatigably hospitable and polite to me, this strange guy who periodically darkened her door.

Some years later, when I was teaching at the University of Manchester, I proposed Jean’s name for an honorary degree, and delightfully both the university and she agreed. It was a great pleasure for once to host her: I remember wandering with her through the center of Manchester, taking a break at the Royal Exchange café, and again chatting about who knows what.

With Jean (I think at the Yang Sing restaurant) in Manchester, 2002

Jean came from the North of England—if I remember right, from Dukinfield, on Tameside in the East of Manchester, near the edge of the Pennines—and retained a distinctive accent throughout her life. She did a BA and MA at the University of Manchester, and then somehow found herself in Latin America. I remember her recounting that—like Che Guevara—she was in Guatemala during the 1954 coup.

She then returned to the UK, where she did a PhD at the University of London and subsequently became the country’s first Professor of Latin American Literature at the then new (and radical) University of Essex, before moving across the Atlantic to Stanford and then Columbia.

Jean’s work continued to be pathbreaking across the decades, from her innovative study of gender and representation in Mexico, Plotting Women (1989), to her magisterial study of Latin America in the Cold War, The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City (2002) and her study of the violence of modernity on the periphery with Cruel Modernity (2013).

What I will remember above all, however, is someone with almost infinite time and generosity, even for a whippersnapper like me, with a great sense of humor and a cackle of a laugh, who was always prepared to take risks (literally, in that I’m told she was a fan of the tables at Las Vegas), but above all knew how to live.

I thought she was immortal. In many ways, she surely is.

La virgen de los sicarios

How to write about narco? What use is literature in the face of violence and terror? This is, ultimately, the question that narconarratives have to confront. Like it or not, they face much the same challenge as that posed famously by Theodor Adorno in the wake of the Holocaust: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Is there not something similarly barbaric about continuing to write novels during, let alone about, our current narco epoch? The danger is, as Mexican critic Rafael Lemus puts it, that “novels about narco fulfill a repellent function: they sedate us, they provide consolation. By providing order to disorder, they lessen its impact. By novelizing the narco, they make it seems domesticable” (“Balas de salva” 41). What is more, the writers of narconarrative also stand to profit from the violence they describe. As Lemus trenchantly argues of such authors: “None of these authors engage in denunciation because none of them wants narcoculture to come to an end. It is what feeds their novels, it is what their imaginary depends upon” (42). But is the alternative then silence?

Like Rascón Banda’s Contrabando, Fernando Vallejo’s La virgen de los sicarios has as its protagonist a writer. He is, apparently, a grammarian but in effect what he is writing is the novel that we are reading, told in first person with many an address to the reader, mostly explanations of the idiosyncratic language of Colombia and, in particular, of Medellín during the time of the sicarios (paid assassins) in the aftermath of drug king-pin Pablo Escobar’s death. With Escobar’s organization in disarray (though Vallejo is not particularly interested in how it functions; in fact, he tells us little if anything about the drug trade at all), the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of young men who once killed on its behalf are let loose, purposeless and all the more dangerous for it. If their murders once had some sort of rationale, directed by their superiors further up the narco hierarchy, now they are free to kill for the pettiest of reasons: they see a pair of baseball boots they like; a taxi driver refuses to turn down the volume of his radio; a passer-by rubs them up the wrong way. Vallejo’s narrative is studded with these almost meaningless executions, which go absolutely unpunished by a state that has lost control of the city.

Early on, Vallejo (or rather his narrator, who also goes by the first name Fernando) addresses the issue of how to understand what is in these young men’s minds, in a comment on what draws them to the historic churches that crowd Medellín’s historic city center: “Sociologists say,” he tells us, “that the hitmen ask María Auxiliadora to make sure they don’t miss, that she guide their aim when they shoot and that the deal works out well for them” (11 [15-16]). But the narrator immediately draws back from such rationalization: “And how do they know this? Are they Dostoyevsky or God the Father maybe when it comes to getting inside other people’s minds? A person doesn’t know what he’s thinking himself, so how’s he going to know what other people are thinking!” (12 [16]). Fathoming the sicario mentality requires either divine omniscience or a novelist’s imagination.

Is then this novel a Dostoyevskian exploration of the mind of an assassin? Yes and no. No, in so far as it never directly provides us with the sicario’s perspective: with the narrator we are perpetually by the side of the killers (his two boyfriends: first Alexis, then Wílmar), looking on and reacting to their actions, if from very close by. Fernando consistently marks his distance from them: they are young and he is old; they delight in the pleasures of mass consumption and popular culture, he is austere and has cultivated tastes; they come from the impoverished barrios (the comunas) that surround and overlook the city, which he has never visited. And yet yes, in that this presumption of distance and difference soon breaks down: the narrator harbors his murderous urges, too, and often his sicario boyfriends simply kill on his behalf, indulging his whims, hoping to please him; it turns out (despite his sporadic denials) that his is the mind of a killer, even if his is not the finger on the trigger. It is often as though the sicarios merely act out his fantasies; in the absence of any other direction, he ends up providing it for them. Though he carefully tries to maintain the sense that he is master of a rational ego, through these young boys he finds himself indulging his Id.

But finally, Vallejo seems to acknowledge defeat. An investigation into the sicario phenomenon would require the powers of a great writer, but as he notes near the book’s end, when he visits the morgue to look for Wílmar’s assassinated corpse, “the best writers in Colombia” are not the professional novelists but the “judges and clerks, and there’s no better novel than a court summary” (128 [117]). Why? Their “language enchanted me. The precision of the terms, the conviction of the style. . .” ([117]). A novel, a novelist’s novel at least, is condemned to imprecision, to stylistic uncertainty. Perhaps this is because, over the course of the tale he is telling, the narrator ceases to be a writer–indeed, we never see him work on whatever grammar he may be writing; he seems instead to have all the time in the world to wander the city with his sicario boyfriends, so long at least as they precariously remain in the land of the living. Hence, once they are both dead, the book more or less fizzles out, as the narrator fades away, wishing the reader all the best (“Well, buddy, here we go our separate ways, you’re with me up to here. Many thanks for your company” [(122)]). In the end, “the cinema and the novel are not enough to capture the city of Medellín” ([58]). The best that Vallejo’s novel can do is trace the undoing of the writer, and of its own writing, as its narrator loses the struggle to maintain his distance from what surrounds him and instead accepts, perhaps, his own part in the barbarism.

“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.

El delirio de Turing I

paz-soldan_delirio-de-turingA tale of cyberspace, crypto-security and hacktivism set in Bolivia? At first glance, the idea is counter-intuitive. The country is by some measures the poorest in South America (with a per-capita GDP of only just over $8,000) and is more often associated with ancient indigenous cultures than with contemporary hyper-modernity. Yet Information Technology and the Internet, and everything that comes with them, are part and parcel of globalization, which by definition breaks down oppositions between First and Third Worlds, Centre and Periphery. Your cellphone battery may well contain lithium from the salt flats of Uyuni. Global forces shape La Paz or Santa Cruz as much as they do New York or Montreal.

Of course, in some ways there is nothing new about this. Even the most remote Andean villages have long been part of global circuits. If now it is lithium that makes the world go round, once it was silver from the mines of Potosí. So there are continuities as well as changes in this latest phase of globalization, and Edmundo Paz Soldán’s novel El delirio de Turing is as interested in the ways in which new technologies ultimately confirm old patterns as he is in the new dimensions of politics and protest that open up when power and resistance are as palpable online as on the streets.

The “Turing” of the book’s title is on the one hand a reference to Alan Turing, the celebrated British mathematician and early pioneer (and theorist) of computing who was also associated with the World War Two efforts at Bletchley Park to crack the code of the Nazi Enigma Machine. On the other hand, however, it is the codename given to one Miguel Sáenz, who is in charge of the Archive at the Bolivian state’s shadowy department dedicated to electronic surveillance and counter-terrorism nicknamed the “Black Chamber.” And just as Sáenz (bespectacled civil servant) becomes Turing (“implacable tracker of coded messages” [13]), as he crosses the portal to his top-secret job deep in the security state, so Paz Soldán is interested in the ways in which we can become other on the Internet: shaking off our humdrum everyday identities to become anonymous or to take on new roles and act out forbidden fantasies.

Most everyone in the Bolivia that the novel depicts (which is only slightly displaced from the Bolivia we know) has an account with a virtual environment known as “el Playground,” which is some kind of “Second Life.” Here, you can take on an avatar and meet, socialize, flirt and fight with others who are also acting out their dreams from their keyboards or touchscreens. The only thing you can not do, at the risk of summoning up the Playground’s own (virtual) security forces, is acknowledge the “merely” digital nature of the environment, or make reference to the so-called “real” world. The condition of entry, in other words, is that you must act online as though the fiction were both real and fully sufficient.

Yet Paz Soldán is equally interested in the extent to which we can never fully shake off our terrestrial histories and identities. That, after all, is in large part the mission of a crypto-analyst such as Sáenz/Turing: to locate and decipher the digital fingerprints on any disruption in the online system and track them back to real-world individuals who could then (if the state deems it necessary) be arrested and disciplined. But Sáenz/Turing is just as vulnerable as anybody else: he cannot fully leave his domestic preoccupations (a wife and daughter from whom he is increasingly distant) at the door to the Black Chamber. What is more, the plot gets going as somebody seems to have accessed his otherwise secure email to send him an all-too-easily decipherable coded message: “Murderer, You Have Blood On Your Hands.”

And by halfway through the novel, we are beginning to have an inkling of what this missive may mean, as we hear the testimony of Sáenz’s wife to an investigative Judge who seems to have the current regime in his sights: for all that Sáenz/Turing sees his work as an intellectual exercise, an interesting game, he may well be complicit in disappearances and tortures, the very visceral and corporeal consequences of his playing with bits and bytes. However much the online world offers liberation and reinvention, and however much contemporary globalization introduces new opportunities and political paradigms, behind everything lurks state violence and a tendency towards totalitarianism.