Category Archives: latin american bookshelf

The Art of Political Murder

This year, many U.S. readers became familiar with a new voice from Latin America–Horacio Castellanos Moya, whose novel Senselessness was published by New Directions in an excellent translation. (And has since been nominated for the Best Translated Book of 2008.) The novel is narrated by an obsessive, paranoid writer whose improbable job it is to edit a 1,400-page report documenting atrocities that occurred during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. (About 1/4 of the report is simply a listing of the names of innocents murdered.)

Like many, upon first encountering Senselessness I took this report as the product of Moya’s twisted imagination, but it is in fact quite real. The report, entitled Guatemala: Never Again, was published in 1998 and there’s even a shortened trade version of it available for purchase.

Two days after the report was published, Guatemalan Archbishop Juan Gerardi, who was the force behind the production and publication of the report, was assassinated in Guatemala City. From the get-go the murder was highly suspicious, and Francisco Goldman’s journalistic book The Art of Political Murder lays out the years-long effort to prove that the Guatemalan Army was in fact behind the murder and punish those involved.

Goldman is best known as the author of three previous novels set in Central America. (I’d say that he’s the U.S.’s best fictional chronicler of that region.) Although he has published his journalism widely, this is his first book-length non-fiction work. He’s done a good job here, as The Art of Political Murder is deftly plotted, well-characterized, and meticulously researched.

Part of what leads to the psychological breakdown of Senselessness’s narrator is the uncanny quality of the testimony of Guatemala’s native peoples, which he reads while proofing the report. Most of the testifiers are native speakers of a Mayan language, and their Spanish is spotty. But rather than diminish the intensity of their speech, the narrator finds that this gives their testimony a poetic quality that makes it all the more powerful.

The Art of Political Murder includes a few passages from the report, and I was surprised to find that it corresponds very closely to the language reproduced in Senselessness.

For those who enjoyed Senselessness, or simply for those interested in finding out about the fallout from one of the most disastrous U.S.-sponsored wars in Latin America, The Art of Political Murder is highly recommended.

Why Did Carlos Say It?: Las Batallas en El Desierto / The Battles in the Desert Video


(This is the first in a recurring series that I am calling the Latin American Bookshelf. As my reading comes to be more and more consumed with translated literature, it becomes clearer and clearer that the non-U.S. literature I most enjoy comes from Latin America. So from time to time I’ll highlight what I consider to be essential Latin American literature, as well as works of nonfiction that I think provide useful context for understanding the it.)

To the best of my knowledge, this is a video put together by 8th grade students somewhere in Mexico. If you push play, the soundtrack you hear will be a song called "Las Batallas," written and performed by Cafe Tacuba, one of Mexico’s most popular pop music groups. The song is an homage to one of the canonical works of Mexican fiction, Las batallas en el desierto, The Battles in the Desert, by Jose Emilio Pacheco. (Pacheco is also well-known in Mexico as a poet.) It’s no coincidence that a class of eighth graders put together this video, as all Mexican students read this short novel, although they would probably do well to read it again as adults.

The lyrics to "Las batallas" start out like this:

Oye, Carlos, ¿por qué tuviste
que salirte de la escuela esta mañana?
Oye, Carlos, ¿por qué tuviste
que decirle que la amabas, a Mariana?

Oh Carlos, why did you have
To leave school that morning?
Oh Carlos, why did you have
To say you love her, to Mariana?

These lyrics reference the main action of the second half of Las batallas, which tells the story that leads to one of the most-pondered question in Mexican literature.

The first half of Las batallas, about 45 pages, is largely non-narrative. It sets the scene while describing, through the eyes of a grown man trying to see through the eyes of his childhood, a Mexico of the 1950s. This postwar period of intense economic growth, often referred to as The Mexican Miracle, a time of sharp economic growth, but also a time of growing social inequality and growing influence of U.S. culture on Mexican life.

In its episodic approach to childhood memories that intersect with historical realities, the first half of Las batallas becomes "a look at memory—individual and collective—and the way that collective memory fuses into history and national identity."

The second half marks a definite break, as the narration becomes far more personally involved with the life of the adolescent Carlos. As alluded to by Cafe Tacuba, and as you can see in the video, Carlos for some reason runs out of school one day to declare his love to his friend’s mother, Mariana. What at first seems a comical episode like many others from one’s youth suddenly spirals into unmitigated tragedy: strangely, many of the adults in Carlos’s life completely overreact to this simple mistake, Carlos is sent in for psychological testing, taken out of school, and separated from his friend and his mother. Years later, he comes across one of his old, impoverished school friends making a living off selling gum on a bus, who tells him that he heard that Mariana died but Carlos finds that when he tries to prove the rumor true or false that he can find no evidence that Mariana even existed. The story becomes a parable about lost childhoods, lost memories, lost chances, the impossibility of wandering back through your past.

And thus is born one of the great conundrums of 20th-century Mexican literature. What exactly happened? Did Mariana ever exist?

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