Of Failed Retreats: Postcolonial Theory and Post-Testimonial Narrative in Central American Writing
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The debates relating to the emergence of postcolonial theory and testimonio in Latin America took place along near simultaneous times between the 1980s and the early 2000s. In many ways, these debates have had a lasting, productive impact on the terms and conditions for contemporary latinamericanist inquiry, as it opened Latin America to key theoretical questions and historical conjunctures occurring in other parts of the globe that obliged a critical reevaluation of itself as a field. However, as it concerned the furthering of any appreciable understanding of postcolonial theory and testimonio themselves as critical notions, these debates, perhaps due to their persistent conceptual overlapping and slippage as coterminous discussions, have also resulted in a confused and confounded relation between the two. In effect, what obtains in the aftermath from these debates is a critically muddled and inextricable relation that has made it difficult to gain any further insight or clarity either in conjunction or individually.
This missed encounter between testimonio and postcolonial theory that I am tracing in this discussion has also been years in the making. As we know through critical histories from scholars such as Elzbieta Sklodowska (1992) among others, testimonio emerged in the 1960s as an alternative narrative form in Latin America for marginalized and oppressed communities in the wake of the success of the Cuban Revolution. In this era it was through the work of Miguel Barnet, in particular with the publication of Biografía de un cimarrón (Montejo and Barnet 1966) where one sees testimonio emerge as the genre heralding a hemispheric cultural revolution and a newly emancipated national and historical subject. However, it isn’t until the 1980s when, with the publication of Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia (Menchú and Burgos-Debray 1983) as well as John Beverley’s “Anatomía del testimonio” (1987) and “Margin at the Center” (1989) that the genre itself began to assume a radically anti-literary and revolutionary character. Unfortunately, the period that marked testimonio’s critical and institutional ascendency also witnessed the demise of left-wing projects in Central America, leaving in its wake a vacuum of alternative emancipatory critico-theoretical programs and a crisis of intellectual disillusionment that is acutely reflected in Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Insensatez (2004), a novel depicting the exhaustion and obsolescence of the sociopolitical conditions that nurtured testimonio originally. I will return to this novel later in the discussion in order to highlight the need to return to these debates, even if only to further reflect upon the stakes which continue to escape us.
As we also know, the emergence of postcolonial theory in Latin America during the early 1990s, advanced by some critics as a theoretical model well suited to invigorate and refashion a critical discourse in the aftermath of the leftist defeats the decade before, was not universally well received and many critics voiced opposition to this disciplinary shift. We are certainly familiar by now with the critiques against postcolonial and subaltern studies in Latin American thought; J. Jorge Klor de Alva (1992), Hugo Achugar (1997), and Mabel Moraña are perhaps the first that come to mind. So we need not spend too much time on this except to remark the particular consistency of the critique as aptly presented by Moraña herself in her essay “El boom del subalterno”:
A pesar de esta salvedad, que intenta resguardar la historicidad en el proceso de asimilación y aplicación de la teorización india en otras realidades culturales, América Latina es producida, como tantas veces en su historia, como un constructo teórico legitimado desde la centralidad de discursos prestigiosos que transfieren sus categorías y agendas ideológicas a una realidad mutlifacética, cuya compleja especificidad histórica resulta inevitablemente nivelada y simplificada en el proceso de traducción teórica y negociación historiográfica. (1997, 52)
Procedurally, and as is evidenced here, dismissals of postcolonial theory as an adequate framework for reading the Latin American social text are infused with claims of specificity, difference, and exclusivity from other former-colonized groups and spaces. What one observes from such retreats from postcolonial theory in Latin America is a certain refounding of originary narratives of regional and cultural difference as grounds for resistance against other––this time, postcolonial––theories of resistance perceived as both excessively foreign and hegemonic. Unfortunately, so strong and impulsive is the need to assert and guard the presumption of a specific Latin American cultural consistency against other regions of the world that these critiques themselves––falling victim as they do to their own accusations––ultimately reduce a host of distinct and wide-ranging methodological and disciplinary interventions into one indistinct mass to be rejected wholesale.
Consequently, the convergence of these disciplinary narratives about testimonio and postcolonial theory have instead served to reveal a critical impasse inhabiting Latin American thought itself. Not least of which is the unfolding of a certain, and now pervasive, understanding of the relation between the two that holds to the following rationale: (1) since testimonio and postcolonial theory emerged in the field at roughly the same time, since they each address related issues of representation (cultural and political), and since each has routinely come to be taken in these discussions as the figure through which the other is understood, they have become mutually constitutive; however, (2) while there is nothing more distinctly Latin American than testimonio, there is also nothing less Latin American than postcolonial theory, such that the very relation critically established between them ultimately vitiates the entire testimonio ‘project’ from the start and thwarts its promise as a new narrative model in the region. That is, while the first premise establishes a felicitous, congruent, critical, relation between the premises of postcolonial theory and testimonio production, the second, marked by a deep anxiety over a loss of distinction, insists on postcolonial theory’s extraneousness and therefore fundamental incompatibility with discussions on Latin America that suggests an unwarranted and unwelcome incursion into what is otherwise a purely regional cultural and literary practice. In other words, a certain misapprehension subtends this configuration wherein postcolonial theory serves as both the underlying critical framework for testimonio, enabling it as a mode of social articulation facilitating the direct expression of insurgent and subordinated voices, but also as the reason for its eventual undoing and fall as the genre prefiguring a revolutionary age in the Americas.
Unfortunately, time has not resolved these suspicions and anxieties. Such reasoning remains active and can be seen impinging recent work on the question. This is also the case with Guatemalan critic Mario Roberto Morales, who, convinced of the urgency to provide consistency to the idea of national community in increasingly postnational times, insists on the displacement of contemporary theoretical models and narrative forms that privilege marginalized/subordinated and nonliterary, cultural sources (i.e., postcolonial theory and testimonio) in order to restore centrality to the roles of literature and the local intellectual as principal custodians of state culture. In his essay, “Peripheral Modernity and Differential Mestizaje in Latin America” (2008), Morales rehearses the positions previously elaborated by Klor de Alva, Achugar, and Moraña well over a decade ago by appealing to Latin America’s historical––read: mestizo––specificity as the reason for postcolonial theory’s fundamental incompatibility to account for the region’s dynamics of colonization and modernity. That is, according to Morales’s understanding of world history, because all Latin American societies are already and uniquely, in one way or another, (at least) mestizo, postcolonial and subaltern theory––which again Morales characterizes as trafficking in binaries––is of no critical value. The following passage crystallizes his understanding here: “In the case of India, and the Middle East, strategic binarism may have been the only way possible in which to move forward, given the recent and nonmestizo character of their colonization. But this is certainly not the case of Latin America...” (486). Morales’s entire claim hinges on a very dubious narrative: that (1) postcoloniality and subalternity as concepts emerge historically to account for social texts with fixed, clear, definable, colonizer/colonized identity positions and (2) that mestizaje (i.e., Latin America itself) constitutes the unique, historico-cultural exemption through which the region emancipated itself from such a colonial binary, and as such, obtains now as inherently incompatible to any ascription of postcoloniality framed from anywhere else in the global south.
Yet it is only the complete misapprehension of the notions of postcoloniality and subalternity themselves as critical concepts that allows Morales to make a claim like this. Contrary to Morales’s assertion that postcoloniality and subalternity serve merely to reproduce strict binary oppositions, it must be emphasized that they were instead developed to account for the heterogeneity and relationality of formerly colonized space, one whose aim was the displacement (not the reinscription) of the very colonized/colonizer binary to which Morales refers. The notion of subalternity as articulated and elaborated by the South Asian subaltern studies group is far from a theory of “strategic binarism,” as Morales calls it, but rather a theory of power based on differential socio-political relations between multiple and competing historical groups. The notion of subalternity, the group’s singular contribution to colonial historiography and critical theory, renders visible a system of social relations organized around groups with differential and overlapping degrees of influence, and one in which the groups themselves are determined not through some pre-given essential or biological trait or origin but via historically contingent and arbitrary conditions.
Ranajit Guha’s crucial note at the end of the essay "On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India," renders this abundantly clear. At stake in Guha’s substantive clarification is not simply a distinction offered between the elite and subaltern, but most importantly the degree in which both the ‘subaltern’ as well as the ‘elite’ are each conceived heterogeneously. This point cannot be emphasized enough. After taking the time to distinguish between the various sectors and levels of the elite in the colonial text, that is, between dominant foreign groups (such as British colonial officials, foreign industrialists and merchants) and dominant indigenous groups, but also among and between dominant indigenous groups at the national level as well as those at regional and locals levels, only then does Guha elaborate upon the collective’s crucial distinction between these elite groups and the subaltern.
The terms “people” and subaltern classes” have been used as synonymous throughout this note. The social groups and elements included in this category represent the demographic difference between the total Indian population and all those whom we have described as “elite.” Some of these classes and groups such as the lesser rural gentry, impoverished landlords, rich peasants and upper-middle peasants who ‘naturally’ ranked among the ‘people’ and the ‘subaltern’, could under certain circumstances act for the ‘elite’, as explained above, and therefore be classified as such in some local or regional situations––an ambiguity which it is up to the historian to sort out on the basis of a close and judicious reading of the evidence. (Guha and Spivak 1988, 44)
Just as the ‘elite’ is composed of disparate, unequally influential groups, so too is the subaltern composed heterogeneously. Neither group, Guha insists, is homogenous and each ultimately derives its value differentially (“the demographic difference between the total Indian population and all those we have described as ‘elite’”). In other words, neither the elite nor the subaltern are conceived as particular cultural or racial identities but rather as social positions, for there is nothing inherently elite or subaltern about each group except for their very relationality within the social text. The implications of this are clear: subalternity therefore expresses not just a simple binary relation between dominant and oppressed groups, or, for that matter, a distinction between colonial and indigenous groups, but is rather the site of compounded subordination wherein the various levels of the elite from both colonial and indigenous groups each exert force––for distinct, competing, and often contradictory reasons––in the subordination of inferior groups. That is, subalternity recognizes and accounts for the fact that elite indigenous groups also participate in the active subordination of local inferior groups. Thus, “between patriarchy and imperialism, tradition and modernity,” the subaltern reveals the multiple and crosshatched relation of subordination in the colonial and postcolonial text, one wherein the figure of the local indigenous woman is often the most marked.
By insisting that postcolonial and subaltern theory were designed to address a colonizer/colonized dichotomy, and that, for that reason, it can never fully account for Latin American critical realities because there is no longer such a neatly delineated social and racial bifurcation as it exists in say, India, is simply a red herring. Morales conceives of mestizaje as having obtained a level of racial amalgamation so thorough that notions such as ethnicity and class began to predominate in the field of social differentiation over others such as race. In other words, for Morales mestizaje was so profoundly achieved in Latin America that the degree of mestizaje itself begins to lose meaning in the face of other more central terms of social classification, which “explains why a colonial subject who is neither unique nor uniform but rather plural and differentiated (in class and ethnicity) emerges in Latin America (489).” The difference here is, of course, that subaltern studies accounts for the very same heterogeneous composition of indigenous colonial society without having to recur to any founding mythology of mestizaje which needlessly posits a “pluralistic mestizo subject... located in all social classes and ethnoculturally differentiated by his or her respective mestizaje” (480). In other words, while Morales’s argument is premised on the long mythological arc of mestizaje, from introduction to exhaustive completion and nullification, to arrive at the importance of class and ethnicity as social categories, subalternity has no need for such originary narratives. Subalternity simply does not rely on the invocation of race and miscegenation to arrive at class and ethnicity as social categories, for they obtain as paramount analytical categories in the first instant. Thus Morales, in seeking to supersede colonized/colonizer identity positions, mistakes as his own the very intervention of postcolonial and subalternist theory that he repudiates.
Yet Guha’s claim extends even further. By breaking down the various levels of influence and power at play within the elite groups, and by detailing the ways in which sub-hegemonic elite groups not only differed between regions, but also often acted against their own interests in favor of the interests corresponding to the more dominant group, Guha uncovers the contingent and contradictory nature of power that betrays as pure fiction any simple binary between colonizer and colonized. As Guha notes, “...the elite was heterogeneous in its composition...[and] create[d] many ambiguities and contradictions in attitudes and alliances, especially among the lowest strata of the rural gentry, impoverished landlords, rich peasants and upper-middle peasants all of whom belonged, ideally speaking, to the category of ‘people’ or ‘subaltern class’” (44). One cannot overstate the critical importance this short statement regarding the heterogeneity of elite and subaltern groups makes not only to the work of Indian historiography, but within other geopolitical sites of critical reflection like Latin America, and in this case, Guatemala. Such is the case here with Morales that in the 21st century a concept as theoretically feeble and counterproductive as mestizaje can continue to be championed, despite having been proven incapable of the critical and analytical insight advanced by other, more recent concepts that may or may not have a distinct Latin American provenance.
Nevertheless, the larger problematic underwriting Morales’ rejection of postcoloniality’s critical stakes goes well beyond this hasty affirmation of a thoroughly accomplished racio-cultural mestizaje in the region, it is also linked to the crisis of ethnic identity in postwar Guatemala and questions over particular, and for him racialized, forms of writing. In his book, La articulacion de las diferencias (1998), Morales engages the question of postwar Guatemalan identity formation through a dialectical play of what he suggests is its generic and textual transfiguration: that is, a conflict between “mestizo” narrative fiction and indigenous testimonio. Over the last thirty years, argues Morales, the testimonio genre, again emerging most notably from the publication of Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú, has unduly come to predominate over articulations of culture and race in Guatemala, and has become the principal narrative model for conceiving and plotting the effects of the country’s civil war to the world. The problem with this, Morales asserts, is not only that the testimonio genre’s principal protagonist, the “essentialized” indigenous subaltern, simply does not represent Guatemala’s otherwise ladino and mestizo population (because, he argues, there are no non-mestizo groups left), but also because the emergence of testimonio has had the added effect of displacing vanguardist narrative fiction––from authors such as Miguel Angel Asturias and as we shall see, Castellanos Moya)––the once crucial arbiter of the cultural landscape (97). In other words, according to Morales, the recent trend towards the testimonio form, specifically its emphasis on the subaltern voice, popular indigenous subjectivity, and cultural-political resistance, has decentered the role of the transculturated, mestizo writer (like Asturias) who is in the best position to articulate a unifying cultural identity.
He querido partir de esta aparente disyuntiva [testimonio/vanguardia], que menosprecia e invalida el discurso vanguardista al reducirlo a una recreación pequeño burguesa del discurso y la cultura campesinas e indígenas, porque sus implicaciones llevarían a que el vanguardismo y sus incorporaciones de lo popular hubiesen sido una especie de desviaciones culturales que seguramente deberían desecharse y borrarse de la historia cultural latinoamericana para ceder paso a lo “auténticamente popular,” léase: al discurso “verdadero” del explotado, marginal y subalterno, el cual quizá esté, al menos en parte, ubicado en la oralidad del testimonio a pesar de la acción de sus mediadores letrados. En otras palabras y según esta lógica: la literatura debiera ceder el paso a la oralidad transcrita al papel, en nombre de la “autenticidad” popular. En estas líneas iniciales me limitaré a hacer una defensa de la literatura como medio válido de formulación estética de identidades transculturadas, mestizas e híbridas. (98)
Two things appear to be going on at once in this passage. On the one hand is Morales’s assertion that with the emergence of testimonio as the vehicle for the global transmission of the “truly authentic,” oral, popular voice, the literary vanguard has been reduced to a petty ‘bourgeois hobby” that has ceased to be critically relevant. In effect, the argument goes, the literary vanguard has been unfairly asked to yield––“ceder el paso”––to testimonio’s gaining influence as the privileged mode of expression. Drawing from well established critical perspectives of the testimonio genre (Beverley 2004; Gugelberger 1996, Sommer 1991), each of which work to unsettle testimonio’s claim of truth and veracity, Morales goes on to substantiate this position by highlighting Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú’s highly mediated formal structure, thereby problematizing the very attributes that initially spurred this challenge against literature (140-149). By emphasizing the degree to which testimonio is ultimately no less illusory than the fiction it is differentiated from, Morales is able to posit what is the ultimately “hybrid” (real/fictive; literal/literary, and so on) nature of testimonio discourse and thereby reconfigure the testimonio/narrative fiction relation from one between competing racialized narrative models (indigenous testimonio and mestizo fiction) into a relation between complementary modes of “mestizo” narrative and representational modes (testimonial fiction/fictional testimonio, etc.).
However, one immediately gathers that the discussion doesn’t appear to be just about testimonio and literature. While this passage claims to be about testimonio and narrative fiction, it also serves as the grounds by which to critique Guatemala’s contemporary racial and cultural politics. What begins to emerge quite plainly here is that Morales’ statements about testimonio––its surreptitious political agenda, its presumption of truthful and authentic expression––also serve to frame his position against what he perceives as separatist, non-assimilating, “multiculturalist” (126), affirmations of indigenous, specifically Mayan, cultural identity in Guatemala. According to Morales, the appeals to cultural and racial difference which underpin testimonios such as Menchú’s are ideologically motivated assertions of indigenous identity that, he argues, ultimately belie a more homogenous state of miscegenation.
El punto aquí sería entender que el mestizaje intercultural guatemalteco es tal, que ninguna de sus polaridades étnicas (indio-ladino) existe por sí misma, separada del otro. Y aunque la existencia del otro es necesaria para reivindicar la diferencia, en nuestro caso esa diferencia tiene que inventarse (magnificándola) porque el mestizaje ha revuelto todo tan intensamente que la diferencia absoluta sólo puede construirse de manera ficcional, metafórica, metonímica, poética. (145-146)
This passage exhibits Morales once again appealing to an underlying myth of complete miscegenated racial consistency in order to then evoke the always already mestizo nature of all Guatemalan cultural production. That is, Morales enlists this fictive mestizo ethnicity to abrogate testimonio’s presumed de-subalternizing cultural effects (because if all Guatemalans are indeed mestizo then no one is subaltern) and to nullify the socio-political demands made by “fundamentalist” non-assimilating indigenous groups (146). That is, if there are no more distinct racial groups (again, because there are no non-mestizo groups left) there is, then, no more racial subordination. If, however, claims of subordination continue, they are being made by resistant groups for purely ideological (i.e., not cultural) reasons.
It is therefore with this antagonism in mind, against both the usurping testimonio genre and the indigenous identitarian claims to which it gives rise, that Morales advances what he calls a defense of literature––“una defensa de la literatura”––that aims for a “recentering” of fiction and the literary vanguard in Guatemalan national culture. In a move identical to Roman de la Campa’s (2008) positioning of a more “Latin American”-based testimonio against a more postcolonial one (Menchú) in order to privilege the former, Morales evokes Miguel Angel Asturias’s literary production (against the Rigoberta Menchú/testimonio couplet) as the foundational narrative model through which to reassert such an aesthetic mestizo synthesis in Guatemalan identity. While it is not necessary for the purposes of these pages to rehearse his argument in its entirety, it is nevertheless important to make absolutely clear the exact terms through which Morales aims to salvage Asturias’ cultural project: “naturalmente, el operativo asturiano es, además de letrado, un operativo ladino, y no indígena (ni “maya”) ni oral: es la apropiación de lo marginal y subalterno indígena desde una posicionalidad central para expresar una identidad deseable, mestiza” (111). The implications from this passage are not at all difficult to parse. The first criteria requires that the cultural producer simply NOT be indigenous (nor Mayan nor illiterate/oral), but preferably lettered and ladino. The second criteria of the “operativo asturiano” is based on the first: that the non-indigenous cultural producer demonstrate the capacity to “appropriate” indigenousness into the field of ladino cultural intelligibility, with the explicit objective, ultimately, of forging a “desired” mestizo Guatemalan identity. Framed as such, the literary vanguard is positioned as both a source and the sole line of defense for ladino/mestizo cultural patrimony.
Indeed, this cultural-aesthetic project, which Alberto Moreiras has previously called “engaged,” or “oriented” transculturation, is not new (2001, 186). Moreover, neither is it emancipatory or revolutionary in any way, since it is simply a reassertion of the centrality of literature and national-popular ideology in the legitimation of a 20th century Latin American nation-state model that is now in irrevocable crisis (see Williams 2002). When Morales suggests the need to return to an Asturian literary model that articulates “estéticamente un mestizaje intercultural como eje-síntesis de la identidad cultural latinoamericana y guatemalteca” (103), this proposal amounts to a re-centering of transculturation as predominant socio-cultural model of Latin American state formation. Morales’s proposal in effect admits that the divergence from this model of social organization is precisely what precipitated this crisis in the first place, and therefore a return to it is precisely what is needed to re-establish a unified (read: non-indigenous), postwar Guatemalan national identity. Given the form and terms at play in Morales’ proposal, however, it seems clear that it has less to do with affirming any viable mestizo and literary cultural program than it is a mere retreat from the testimonio genre and from any form of subalternist reflection in Latin American cultural production.
That is, Morales’s proposal appears more a symptom of a still-deeper misapprehension and suspicion of the critical questions the testimonio genre brought to bear; between, for instance, the idea of speech and the politics of its intelligibility in modern plurilingual societies. Does not Morales’s suggestion of miscegenation rendering all voices equally intelligible admit to an inherent inequality between distinct racial groups? Are not these groups inherently equal to each other already, regardless of racial distinction? Does not such an unproblematized understanding of mestizaje blind one to the possibility (and yet simultaneously confirms) that the terms governing the historical and formal non-equivalence between peoples are always otherwise than prevailing racial narratives hold? How can one guarantee against the possibility that race itself happens to be the retroactive discursive production that conditions the very narrative of hegemonic mestizo fictive ethnicity that Morales now takes as normative? In other words, does not the claim of mestizaje merely cement and naturalize race as a false origin for exploitation and subordination? Wouldn’t it be more productive to acknowledge that the arbitrary and contingent conditions underwriting subalternization between otherwise equal groups always exceed race and will continue to seep through any world-historical claim to racial homeostasis?
This egalitarian principle I am invoking, and which I am enlisting from Jacques Rancière’s work Disagreement (1999), obtains most critically with regard to the status of speech at stake in testimonio: e.g., that ‘there are no longer any differences between speaking beings from competing groups because they have all been subject to transculturation,’ sutures over far more promising possibilities. Morales’s “Asturian”/mestizo approach is, in effect, based on a mistaking of one’s inability to understand another’s speech as a sign of the latter’s insufficient mediation, rather than on, perhaps, the recognition of what Rancière would call the fundamental “equality of any speaking being with any other speaking being” (30) prior to, and irrespective of, any attempt at mediation. How thus to broach this compounded impasse between Asturias/Menchú, fiction/testimonio, mestizo/indio, hybridity/subalternity? How to make the case that a speaking being’s presumed unintelligibility and illegibility is never simply a question of their insufficient mediation, but rather an assertion of a foundational understanding of equality that preempts mediation at all, the effect of which amounts to a breaking down of very field of semiological intelligibility through which Guatemala is understood and perceived by critics like Morales?
Horacio Castellanos Moya’s novel offers us a critical way back in. Insensatez, translated into English as Senselessness (2008), is a novel that recounts a brief period of events related to an unnamed narrator-protagonist as he is hired to serve as a copyeditor for a human rights report being published by the Archdiocese of an unnamed Central American country. The report itself our narrator-protagonist has been hired to work on is understood by all critical accounts of this novel to be a thinly veiled reference to Guatemala: Nunca Más, Informe del Proyecto Interdiocesano de Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (1998) and as such presents a first-hand account of the narrator-protagonist documenting his thoughts, feelings, and attitude during the time of his involvement on this report. In short, this novel is both about the stakes of historical testimony as it is simultaneously and intimately structured as one; that is, it is fully inscribed within, and seemingly informed by, the critical and historical tradition of testimonio as a genre. However, and as we shall see, what is indeed novel about Insensatez is its obversion of testimonio’s most fundamental premise: the testimonial voice is no longer the subject of mediation by an intellectual necessarily and unambiguously committed to the cause of social justice, but by a figure whose personal and political contradictions thwart the possibility of any such assurances. In place of the conventional and seemingly exhausted figure of the committed intellectual acting in solidarity with social movements, the narrator-protagonist hired to edit this compilation of testimonial accounts is suffering from a certain ideological crisis, or what Beatriz Cortez identifies as “failed cynicism” among postwar leftist intellectuals and writers (2010).
In many ways, Mario Roberto Morales’s mestizo aesthetic literary project informs Castellanos Moya’s many formal and narrative features in Insensatez, specifically as they relate to the question of testimonio and its vital legacy in the region. One could also argue that Castellanos Moya is exactly the kind of vanguardist fiction writer that Morales both anticipates and demands. For one, he is an educated, lettered, urban, writer, and not some ideologically motivated and non-assimilationist indigenous subject that Morales is so suspicious of. As a literary work, Insensatez is an innovative, self-reflexive take on the timeworn testimonial apparatus, the narrative itself takes place in an urban cultural sphere, and it also partakes, as Morales himself urges, in the literary appropriation of the indigenous voice. For his part, Ignacio Sanchez Prado astutely posits Insensatez within an emerging corpus of “post-testimonial’ narrative in Central America, one whose defining feature is the now critical troping of what were once staples of realism in contemporary Central American narrative: military dictatorships, guerrillas, social movements, the committed intellectual, so on (2010, 79). Sanchez Prado recognizes and in fact directly aligns Insensatez as “parte de una tendencia en la cual los escritores centroamericanos reclaman para sí el derecho a la escritura literaria como una forma de superar tanto el imperativo revolucionario como el imperativo testimonial” (82). Serving therefore as a timely and most apt rehearsal of Morales’s “Asturian” proposal for a return to literature, Castellanos Moya’s novel seems poised to mark the historical moment when testimonio and its formal elements, the once privileged form through which to transmit historical memory in Central America, give way to its novelistic reinscription as a tropology of failure and cynicism of leftist intellectuals and popular mobilizations; of a failed adequation between history and memory, and ultimately of writing’s retreat from the political (79). That is, where thirty years ago there was once a poetics of solidarity between intellectuals and social movements, there is now only a narratology of indifference, disaffection, and hostility which now only vanguardist fiction alone is able to capture. Insensatez itself, Morales could reasonably argue, both announces testimonio’s obsolescence and ushers in a newly legitimated regime of literary and mestizo cultural nationalism.
As such, Morales’s designs to have literature unseat testimonio and retake its rightful place as predominant cultural narrative model is ultimately not at all at odds with Castellanos Moya’s own aims and aspirations as a literary author. After all, Castellanos Moya appears to share in Morales’s suspicion and repudiation of the testimonio genre. Nanci Buiza, citing from interviews with the author, makes perfectly clear his feelings about testimonio: “it is a genre that “I don’t cultivate and that I don’t like at all”...it “had become a kind of new church” that politically engaged writers were expected to follow (cited in Buiza 2013, 152). An unfortunate set of statements, to be sure, but one can’t be too hard on Castellenos Moya for this. As part of a generation of struggling fiction writers in postwar Central America, one can concede how a prevailing worldwide preference for testimonio over literature from the area might impinge on a writer’s career opportunities and professional aspirations, as one could also see just how these dynamics might easily lead to the creation of certain antagonistic relationships between aesthetic categories that are in effect more about labor than about aesthetics. That is, while on the one hand Morales’s insistence on the abandonment of testimonio and on a return to literature neatly coincides with Castellanos Moya’s own ambivalence with testimonio and his career as a contemporary fiction writer in Central America, on the other, and quite remarkably, Morales’s racial, political, and literary outlook finds its unlikely personification in our very narrator-protagonist from Insensatez. The rest of this essay considers the full implications of this convergence.
Yet before I move on to this next part I should clarify a few things. The first of which is to remind the reader that simply because I identify this shared interest in both Morales and Castellanos Moya does not therefore mean Castellanos Moya embraces (or ought to embrace) the entirety of Morales’s ideological agenda. Such a conclusion neither follows, nor is it necessary for the itinerary I am plotting: I am less interested in reading Insensatez as mestizo fiction than I am in reading it (and the narrator-protagonist in particular) as the narrative instantiation of latinamericanisms’s (from Klor de Alva to Morales) reactionary and ultimately failed retreat from testimonio. As such, my turn to this novel is dedicated to illuminating the critical stakes of the theoretical-disciplinary impasse detailed at the beginning of this essay. Specifically, I am interested in elaborating the ways in which this narrator-protagonist rehearses and dramatizes the conjuncture subtending the field of debate opened up between postcolonial theory and testimonio. Castellanos Moya’s Insensatez does not lie outside or beyond this critical impasse; it was born in it, molded by it, even if it remains unaware of its full scale and of all the critical stakes at play. Given these conditions, this text offers itself in my view, at least provisionally, as a text that may be read as symptomatizing, wittingly or unwittingly, the unabating disciplinary contradictions between language and social heterogeneity that we have been tracing. As such, my analysis, while moving away from self-reflexive appeals to cynicism, aestheticism, and irony, may then not coincide with more self-contained and nuanced readings of the novel, many of which I will be considering in the following pages. Rather I aim simply to draw and reflect upon Insensatez’s narrator-protagonist as a textual figuration for the very failed retreat from testimonio for which it is also an effect.
As remarked above, our narrator-protagonist’s employment as the copyeditor for a secret human rights report documenting genocidal crimes by the state military against the country’s indigenous communities positions him within a ideological-historical conjuncture that is both infelicitous and unsettling. While yes, he does indeed take the job recommended and facilitated by a friend, he immediately decries the deceptive nature of his deal and wishes he never accepted it: “knowing that I would never refuse such an offer...because he perceived that I was not so complete in the mind that I would accept his offer and even get excited about the idea of being involved in such a project without weighing the pros and cons or negotiating, which is just what happened” (6 ). The first three chapters of the novel, in effect, are dedicated to describing every grievance the narrator-protagonist finds with his new position, emphasizing just how much he regrets ever moving from another country to take this job, of the work being more than he originally agreed to, of his taking it for such little pay, of the revulsion he feels being employed by the Catholic Church, over the confining nature of his office, etc. That is, and in a quite radical departure from the conventional testimonio apparatus, one finds in the narrator-protagonist a deep ambivalence with regard to his involvement in this project. Betraying all expectations a reader may have of both the genre and the immediate political context, expressions confirming a conviction of the moral, ethical, and/or political stakes of this narrator-protagonist work are not forthcoming. Instead, what becomes clear is that this narrator-protagonist has no ideological, social, or even cultural investment in this project whatsoever. To our narrator-protagonist, it is just a job, but one he also recognizes as perilous and even life threatening. That is, as an intellectual and writer who’s own political writings led to his own exile from his home country, and now turned as a freelance editorial contractor abroad, he would rather not be working on such a controversial and politically dangerous project such as this one in the first place. For, he claims, his participating in the preparation of a document detailing the genocidal crimes by the state “has put me in sights of the armed forces of this country” (4 ).
Throughout, our narrator-protagonist is presented as quite psychologically fragile, in a constantly anxious and frantic state, and, given his degree of professional malcontentment, depicted as socially hostile and capable of the most untoward and acerbic behavior toward supervisors, coworkers, and even acquaintances. Examples are numerous and worthy of special note given their frequent and almost always unnecessary and derisive references to indigenous groups. Over drinks with an old acquaintance, for instance he appeals sarcastically to a feigned investment in the “righteousness of a just cause [he] was committing [him]self to” (2008, 20 ). On another occasion, upon being informed that, due to a complication he will not be receiving his salary advance as anticipated and after berating the staff and office manager, our narrator-protagonist fantasizes about stabbing the latter to death, grumbling to himself, “Didn’t he realize I wasn’t just another miserable Indian like he was used to dealing with?” (27 ). Such is his general level of social disaffection and professional frustration, in other words, that he can, without apparent contradiction, scorn the very subject matter and mode of writing he himself is working on: “because nobody in his right mind would be interested in writing or publishing or reading yet another novel about murdered indigenous people” (62 ).
Ultimately our narrator-protagonist, showing signs of difficulty being able to adequately relate to the historical and political plight of indigenous communities in the region, is simply ill suited for the job. While on the one hand he appears sensitive, though almost too sensitive, to the transcribed testimonial accounts of survivors he is working on, which he concedes is provoking “frenzied fits of paranoia,” and “onsets of anxiety” (7, 11 [19, 23]), on the other he remains skeptical and contemptuous of the very team of writers, scientists, and activists that have contributed to this report: “so-called defenders of human rights” (31), “fanatic[s] of that nonsense called political correctness [corrección política],” and “savior[s] of indigenous peoples” (35 ). In other words, setting aside for the moment the larger, culminating reason why the narrator-protagonist shouldn’t have been hired to work on this report––his eventual fall into paranoia-induced neurosis––one might also add a deep suspicion of the very ideological ground we have seen Morales and others identify with the testimonial apparatus itself: that is, the relation between indigenous groups and the intellectuals and activists working in solidarity in promoting indigenous claims to justice and the right to autonomy.
As such, our narrator-protagonist appears to take no joy, fulfillment, or validation from his participation in this project. But this is not true, for there is at least one aspect of his involvement in this project that does indeed captivate our narrator-protagonist’s attention, albeit in ambivalent ways both pleasurable and psychically overwhelming. I am referring, of course, to his attraction to specific fragments of survivor testimony contained within the human rights report he is copyediting. More specifically, these fragments are instances of translated and transcribed oral speech taken from the testimonial accounts of indigenous survivors that describe their experience and witnessing of torture and mass killing by the military, often of their very own families and community. Insensatez itself begins in fact with his complete engrossment with one such fragment, “I am not complete in the mind,” a phrase attributed to a Cakchiquel man who had witnessed his family’s murder (1 , italics in original). On the one hand, our narrator-protagonist’s prolonged contemplation of this passage leads to his bursting out of his stuffy office, on the verge of “going mad [borde de trastorno]” and about to “pass out in a frenzied fit of paranoia,” resulting in his clever claim that it is ultimately he who must not be ‘complete in the mind’ for ever taking this job in the first place (4, 7 [16, 18]). At the same time however, due to the nature of these fragments as translated utterances of traumatic witnessing and reflection, and because of their understandably catachrestic and heteroclite nature as products of repression and translation, our narrator-protagonist cannot help but ascribe to them an almost irresistible literary quality. He argues,
...powerful sentences spoken by the Indians for whom remembering the events they told about surely meant bringing back their most painful memories, but also meant entering the therapeutic stage of confronting their past, bringing out into the open those bloody ghosts that haunted their dreams, as they themselves admitted in those testimonies, which seemed like concentrated capsules of pain and whose sentences had so much sonority, strength, and depth that I wrote down some of them in my personal notebook. (18 )
That is, for our narrator-protagonist these fragments are both potentially insanity inducing and aesthetically pleasing simultaneously, and this leads him, defying the security measures designed to protect the report and those involved in it, to copy these fragments down in a small notebook which he takes out of the building and carries with him in order read out-loud later, either privately or to acquaintances. Examples of this kind of transcribed speech that he inscribes into his notebook include, “The houses they were sad because no people were inside of them” (19 ) or “while the cadavers they were burning, everyone clapped and they began to eat...” (36 ). Regardless of the specific fragment, what the narrator-protagonist seems most to indulge in, the only thing he appears to enjoy from his involvement in this project, is the fortuitous production of poetic signification that emerges from the combination of indigenous figurations of pain and loss through an aberrant Spanish syntax and grammar.
Once again, Insensatez rehearses in formally salient ways Morales’ provocation for a return to the mestizo aesthetic project. The terms underwriting Morales’ “Asturian” return, of course, are for Castellanos Moya also very much in play, for as Sanchez Prado reminds us “el regreso de lo literario al centro de la práctica escritural centroamericana require...una toma de conciencia respecto a los límites de lo literario y lo estético frente a los horrores del pasado (82). It is clear that our narrator-protagonist’s form of engagement with these indigenous testimonial accounts is commensurate with just such an aesthetic cultural program: “appropriating” indigenous speech––even pain and trauma induced speech––into the field of ladino intelligibility, the result of which automatically ascribes to it both a poetic, literary, quality. While on the one hand our narrator-protagonist seems to be rehearsing Morales’s mestizo-aesthetic proposal for a culturally unified (read: mestizo, not multicultural) Guatemala, Insensatez, on the other, makes clear that this aesthetic ideal can only come about by the complete and utter abrogation of any ethical or political relation with the subject of state violence. Through our narrator-protagonist, one can see that the aesthetic relation is conditioned by a simultaneous disavowal of that violence and its sublation into art: into the “richness of the language of his so-called aboriginal compatriots...that reminded me of poets like the Peruvian César Vallejo” (20 ). What is activated in this process is nothing other than transculturation. The following passage renders this perfectly clear:
those sentences that seemed so astonishing from a literary point of view...sentences I could, with luck, later use in some kind of literary collage, but which surprised me above all for their use of repetition and adverbs, such as this one that said, What I think is that I think...Wow. And this one, So much suffering we have suffered so much with them...: its musicality perplexed me when I first read it, its poetic quality too high not to suspect that it came from some great poet rather than from a very old indigenous woman who with this verse had brought to an end her wrenching testimony (32 ).
It is not accidental that our narrator-protagonist would invoke a collage as the ideal aesthetic form into which to incorporate these fragments. In fact, a collage seems to be the most befitting literary figure to understand the critical stakes of Morales’s mestizo aesthetic. A collage functions precisely via an imposed divorcing of the cultural phenomena from its context. In the case of our narrator-protagonist, it means retaining certain formal aspects of the quotes (“repetition and adverbs”) while discarding the reference within which these statements were made (“wrenching testimony”). The very idea of a literary collage––the arranging and rearranging of semiotically disparate though conceptually related matter––is not too dissimilar to the work our narrator-protagonist is already doing for the report––with one exception of course: with this collage, he desires to have these disembodied voices read for their poetic, transculturated, plenitude and not for their radical unassimilability as instances of illiterate speech.
It is important to keep in mind that this tropological return to the testimonial apparatus in contemporary narrative is not a warrantless development, but is rather the dialectical textual form through which testimonio is being reassessed and indexed. It is under such historical and cultural conditions that Castellanos Moya, who we might remember “doesn’t like” testimonio and doesn’t subscribe to its claims, can at one and the same time play both hands. Insensatez in effect constitutes an experiment with itself, a playing out of the game from its two central oppositions, one wherein testimonio is positioned as the predominant institutionalized model for historical accounting in Central America, and where a cultural model such as Mario Roberto Morales’s mestizo aesthetic––embodied in the figure of our narrator-protagonist––is given access to infiltrate the very core of the testimonio apparatus and attempt to reinscribe its political and aesthetic stakes towards a presumably more literary, and therefore desirable, ground. Insensatez, therefore, is a dramatization of multiple and concurrent, though interlaced, retreats: a retreat from testimonio back towards literature, and a retreat from the politics of cultural difference to its assumed dissolution under mestizaje. Given such a critical conjuncture, Insensatez presages a failed retreat that issues ultimately from an apparent abdication from the contemporary burden these questions pose and a renouncing of the historical responsibility intellectuals bear in confronting and working through them. Unfortunately, such a setting in motion of reactive forces does not signal in any way a disarming or overcoming of the critical questions that has plagued testimonio from the beginning, problems which remain very much at stake.
Some are inclined, and with good justification, to read in our narrator-protagonist a reflection or effect of “cynicism” (Cortez), “trauma” (Buiza), “cowardice” (Steinberg 2014) and/or madness as “extreme doubt” (Kroll-Bryce 2014). The present discussion will ultimately not deviate too far from this constellation of propositions. However, what I do contend Insensatez throws dramatically into relief is a much larger semiological crisis within the Central American social text, one which obtains from an irredeemably failed retreat from the problems of speech opened up by the question of testimonio that can no longer simply be ignored, problems which, in addition, no longer only pertain to testimonio. In other words, my impression is that one cannot but read Morales’s and our narrator-protagonist’s desperate clutching to a mestizo aesthetic as a crisis of language itself that emerges from, in Sanchez Prado’s terms, “el vaciamiento de los mitos constitutivos de la retórica grandilocuente y anacrónica de las revoluciones ochentistas” (83). An irrevocably illiterate condition––in which neither testimonio nor literature are found to be adequate––obtains from a fundamental inability to read contemporary social phenomena in postwar Central America; it is a condition of absolute semiological inadequation within Central American writing which the narrator-protagonist himself cannot but internalize and embody through his appropriation of indigenous, limit-experience speech culminating in his psychological breakdown.
Yet we must not fail to ask, what specifically induces this fall into psychosis? Was our narrator-protagonist predisposed to it such that it could have happened at any point in time? Or does it necessarily have something to do with some aspect of the report with which he was involved at the time? If it does have something to do with his involvement in the report, what exactly provoked it? The answer of course is impossible to ascertain. However, one hypothesis might be that it was our narrator-protagonist impudently handling indigenous survivor’s oral testimony that led to this psychological breakdown; that it was his brazenly stealing the fragments of speech used to describe scenes or experiences of torture and death, and employing them for unintended, playful, activities that little by little produced an irreversible measure of guilt, and led to his mental collapse. Seen in this way, this rather sudden though not unforeseeable mental debilitation can be taken to be some kind of psychic unraveling brought on as a consequence of his lacking any ethical orientation with respect to these testimonial accounts and the indigenous victims who first uttered those statements. While no doubt a hypothesis such as this really flattens out a complex narrative like Insensatez into a simple morality tale, it allows us to ask if our narrator-protagonist’s psychological breakdown is a consequence of his being devoid of a system of values, or from espousing the wrong kind of values? In other words, is our narrator-protagonist even capable of discerning a difference between acceptable and unacceptable forms of employing these fragments, and is he simply confusing one for the other? Or is it in fact the case that it is the fragments themselves, and not our narrator-protagonist in particular, that wield the power to produce psychological effects?
This in effect is Nanci Buiza’s thesis. In her reading, these affective poetic testimonial fragments triggered within our narrator-protagonist a “metamorphosis away from this initial cynicism toward an experience of empathy that enables him to comprehend and ultimately to internalize the trauma of the Maya indigenous community expressed in the testimonies he reads” (152). In other words, while the narrative of psychological breakdown remains, in Buiza’s reading it is taken as a net positive result as it confirms the narrator-protagonist’s “ideological and characterological” transformation brought about by an “emotional identification with the indigenous survivors and witnesses he reads about in the testimonies” (156). That is, while his going crazy remains the outcome, the point is that it should be read as a good thing as it speaks to a sincere traumatic identification with the victims of state violence.
Unfortunately, these narratives of ethical deterioration and/or redemption only further confuse the issue at hand. For while the account of our narrator-protagonist’s actions throughout the story remain the same, both readings (the ethical and affective) simultaneously share in the assumption that it is the fragments themselves, and not our narrator-protagonist, that are the only active agents in the narrative, and it is therefore the former that possess the absolute (i.e., poetic) capacity to elicit a transformation in the latter. In both cases, our narrator-protagonist is reduced to a subject entirely susceptible to the affective power of these fragments (toward either deterioration and/or redemption) and as such promotes the notion of a modern subject with no real ability to make independent determinations on its own and with no need for any ethical or political orientation to guide action, since the fragments, since all writing in effect, can do that work. That is, both narrative outcomes (ethical deterioration and/or redemption) succeed merely in reducing the source of all activity and meaning in this novel to the affective power of these fragments alone, disallowing the ideological and historical reassertion of the very mestizo aesthetic for which Mario Roberto Morales and our narrator-protagonist are but contemporary symptoms.
Instead I contend that the semiological crisis at stake here has very little to do with the poetic or affective properties of these fragments. We must remind ourselves that the fragments in and of themselves do not contain anything essential that directly impinges on one’s capacity for action; poetic qualities are not self-evident and/or inherent, but historically ascribed properties. Insensatez is therefore not some cautionary tale about what can happen to someone (anyone) when they encounter or stumble upon literary testimonial writing, whether in the form of the madness that ensues from misappropriating otherwise aesthetically pleasing fragments from the world-historical gravity and seriousness of the subject matter they describe, or in the form of atonement for past misgivings where these survivor fragments, through their inherently poetic nature, can themselves compel in our narrator-protagonist an empathetic traumatic experience “in which his relation to the testimonies has finally shifted from aestheticism to a poetics of affect” (Buiza, 164). But one must ask if affective objects can indeed be enlisted to substantiate ethical claims or if ethical appeals can claim as their own the actions incited by affective objects. Does not one annul the other? As Charles Hatfield reminds us, “repudiating ideology [in favor of affect]...makes all conflicts fundamentally identitarian. That is because without ideology there is no disagreement, only conflicting affective states that are reducible to different identities....without a conflict that is grounded in opposing ideologies, there is no true or false, right or wrong, better or worse, only difference” (2014, n. para 13). As such, while Insensatez may be indeed marked by an axiomatic crisis, it is not reducible to one; it is not concerned with either critiquing or promoting the critical bankruptcy of a system of values that would distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable modes of accounting for these fragments, and even less so in showcasing how these textual fragments have the power themselves to predetermine, dictate, and enforce the terms of their own reception. The ethical as much as the affective each prove to be entirely too overdetermining for something like testimonio. In fact, that neither the ethical nor the affective can be shown to effectively account for the ideological vacuum opened up by the testimonio/literature antagonism may be exactly the point, that is, for what we see instead is a narrative exploring the threshold of illiteracy that obtains from the mutual short-circuiting of the two, or what Sanchez Prado identifies as “el desmontaje radical de la idea del intelectual como figura necesaria para la articulación de lo político” (81).
I thus posit that the historical conjuncture our narrator-protagonist is ensconced in is generated not simply by the antagonism created between competing ideological values (revolutionary, aesthetic, affective) and their assurances of being best able to attend to these fragments, but rather by a more fundamental misapprehension, shared by them all, over the relation between these fragments and language itself. That is, regardless of the approach to these fragments, to read them either as historical truth, as literature, or as embodied interactions, they all share in one foundational assumption about them: that these testimonial fragments are meaningful and affective because they are guarantees for a self-possessed and self-present voice. One need only consider the little notebook he carries around, within which are inscribed, and which he indulges in reading aloud, fragments of pain-inflected testimony uttered by victims of state violence. That is, despite manifesting themselves as valorizations of the aesthetic import of these testimonial fragments, our narrator-protagonist’s actions and impulses are nevertheless guided by a mestizo-inflected logocentricity that does not just privilege speech over writing, but over even unmediated indigenous oral forms as well. And it is in the moments leading up to our narrator-protagonist’s descent into madness that Castellanos Moya’s novel offers a critical narrativization on what this form of logocentrism implies, both for Morales’s mestizo-aesthetic and our narrator-protagonist’s failed retreat from testimonio.
The crucial moment is his being presented with the opportunity to meet a living survivor of torture during the war, a woman named Teresa who happens to work in the same building. Crucially, this was not just an opportunity to meet anyone who experienced violence and abuse while under military custody, but rather a person in particular whose personal testimony forms part of the very report our narrator-protagonist is editing. He recalls:
What a surprise I had that morning when I found out that the beautiful and mysterious woman I saw infrequently in the corridors of the archbishop’s palace was the same girl whose testimony I was proofing, testimony that had upset me so much that I couldn’t complete the task in one sitting and had decided to go out to the palace courtyard to get some fresh air and a bit of morning sunshine; such a surprise it was when Pilarica, [who] told me that the woman who at that very moment was walking along half-lit palace corridor was the same girl whose testimony I was telling her about with great trembling. (95 )
This is a most pivotal scene in the novel, one that dramatizes with supreme clarity the dynamics and contradictions at play in this entire discussion between the stakes of postcolonial critique and testimonio criticism. In this scene our narrator-protagonist is confronted by the presence of a woman working in the Archbishop’s palace, a woman who was just identified as those among whom were kidnapped, raped, and tortured during the war, and whose testimonial account of her experience happens to be the very section of the report he is currently working on. In other words, and one of the reasons that makes this scene unique from all the other testimonial evocations of violence in the novel, is the virtual simultaneity between a personal and unwitting encounter with a victim of state violence whilst in the midst of reading this subject’s testimonial account of torture. Our narrator-protagonist’s response to this encounter is quite dramatic and unexpected, given his typically brazen demeanor.
“Teresa is a lovely girl, do you want me to introduce you?” Pilar asked me..., which I could reply to only with a look of consternation––not more than five minutes earlier I had been editing the text of Teresa’s testimony about the most abominable rapes she had been subjected to by the soldiers who tortured her––the last thing I felt like doing was looking her in the face.... (96 )
She was characterized as “beautiful and mysterious” while our narrator-protagonist remained unaware of who she was, but once he learned of it, he couldn’t even “look her in the face.” In the context of this discussion, one could argue instead that he couldn’t bear to hear her voice. That is, when presented with the opportunity to meet a surviving victim, who is named in and whose account forms part of the report, he sinks away and flees, incapable of even exchanging eye contact, let alone hear the sound of her voice while being introduced. He failed to meet Teresa that day, and what is more, he never did for “[he] planned to keep as far away from her as possible throughout my stay at the archbishop’s palace” (99 ). Once again, there is no other scene like this in the rest of the novel, and the narrative hinges absolutely on what it reveals about our narrator-protagonist. Why such a definitive and categorical reaction to flee? Why wouldn’t he agree to meet her? Why couldn’t he face her? Would he have been able to face any of the others? That is, would he be capable of personally meeting any of the other victims named in the report he was editing? More specifically, would our narrator-protagonist be capable of meeting personally any of the survivors from whose testimony fragments can be found copied into his little notebook? Would he able to at least look at them in the face, that is, hear their voice? Or, is there something specific about Teresa?
It is important to point out, and this is another reason why this scene is unique in the novel, the narrator-protagonist informs us that Teresa was neither a guerilla rebel nor an inhabitant from an indigenous community in the Guatemalan highlands, but rather an urbanite, a daughter of an activist labor lawyer and the niece to a military Colonel who aided in securing her release from police custody. In the context of this debate and the notion of the mestizo aesthetic promoted by Morales, she is a ladina.
Secondly, we can deduce with practical certainty that none of Teresa’s testimony found its way into our narrator-protagonist’s little notebook. We can do so because almost all, if not all, references he makes of these treasured fragments are marked as coming from the translated oral testimony of indigenous survivors. Teresa’s testimony was of course not translated, for one can presume that the testimony was conducted in Spanish. One must remember that for our narrator-protagonist, the aesthetic quality of these fragments is achieved precisely via the unpredictable semiosis generated from the double processes of traumatic articulation in the native language and its heavily wrought and heteroclite translation. Teresa’s testimony offers the opportunity for no such indulgences. He adds,
thereby was revealed to me conclusively the very image that had forced me to flee from the office where I had been working, focused as I was on correcting the report that contained the testimony of the girl raped over and over again, the image that had made my hair and my soul stand on end so intensely that I could not continue reading and the only thing I could think to do was flee to the courtyard to get some sunshine and fresh air to dispel that image, which of course did not happen... (98 [109-10])
This is a lengthy scene, one that rehearses both Teresa’s personal testimony of torture as well as the ultimately aborted encounter between them in the courtyard. But it also captures the fallout of our narrator-protagonist’s experience reading her testimony, the most intensely elicited in the entire novel. Our narrator-protagonist identifies nothing of note aesthetically in this account, quite the opposite, as he is instead powerfully afflicted by the horrors of this woman’s testimony. Out of all the testimonies he describes in this narrative, his reaction to Teresa’s account is the most acutely and profoundly felt, tormenting him in a way unlike all the others. Again, what is there about her that elicits such a strong reaction?
Is Teresa’s ladina, middle-class, Spanish-speaking voice the reason why we won’t find any part of Teresa’s testimony in that little notebook of his, nor in that literary collage he fantasizes about? If not, what exactly then is determinant of this inverse correlation between those accounts which our narrator-protagonist finds aesthetically meaningful and those which brutalize his psyche as traumatic instances of historical truth? Why do fragments of the former end up in a little notebook, while others like Teresa’s, can be seen inflicting emotional and psychological violence on our narrator-protagonist (a fellow white, middle-class, Spanish monolingual). Why is there such a differential between indigenous and ladino accounts of torture to our narrator-protagonist, and on what ground is this differential ultimately based?
Does, in effect, the mere and simple presence of a testimonial survivor in this scene constitute the basis for this differential? Would this experience with Teresa’s testimony obtain with the same intensity if our narrator-protagonist never learned of this “beautiful and mysterious” woman’s identity? Does Teresa’s materialization from written testimony to a living breathing body constitute the very difference needed to induce in our narrator-protagonist this singular, highly impactful, experience? While on the one hand it appears undeniable that Teresa’s presence had an irrevocable and profound effect on our narrator-protagonist’s experience that day, on the other we must realize the extent to which such an admission actually obliterates the entire horizon of aesthetic, ethical, and affective possibilities for testimonio (all writing, for that matter), since the determinant source of action and affect would be confirmed to emit not from the writing itself but instead from the presumed vocal origin of such writing. That is to say, if it is only at the chance of meeting Teresa that the threat of an unadulterated––whole and self-present––voice emerges and overwhelms our narrator-protagonist, as opposed to, say, the voices from indigenous survivors, then testimonio is reduced to only ever being at the service of the mestizo aesthetic all along. That is to say, since there is therefore absolutely nothing inherent to the testimonio form that prevents its legibility within the mestizo aesthetics’ field of intelligibility, except differentially as its counterpoint and limit, then mestizo fiction and testimonio are simply two forms within the same textual system and therefore more alike than previously suspected as they ultimately derive their identity and value precisely through their difference, and share in the same conditions of possibility.
If this is the case, then it reveals to us that Insensatez cannot escape the logocentrism that it itself invokes and puts into play through our narrator-protagonist. It confirms to us that the metaphysics of presence (either testimonio or mestizo fiction) which subtends the entire work guides not only our narrator-protagonist’s actions (his willingness to abscond with fragments of indigenous testimonial speech as well as his refusal to hear Teresa’s voice) but serves also as the very grounds that the novel uses to makes itself legible as a testimonial account of its own, this time as an account documenting our narrator-protagonist’s fragile consciousness buckle under the weight of his unconscious, anxiety-induced, instincts as a result of his work on this human rights report. Our narrator-protagonist, set in motion as the figure through which to temper, perhaps even invalidate, the importance given to testimonio in contemporary Central American writing, ultimately “confirms”, as Derrida argues, “the privilege of the logos and founds the ‘literal’ meaning then given to writing” (1976, 15). Which is to say, Insensatez merely recenters testimonio and mestizo fiction together as the only two options available to narrate contemporary Guatemalan critical realities. A squandered opportunity. The appeal to logos which underwrites Insensatez itself is one derived from rather traditional uncomplicated critiques of the genre, like Morales’s, and effectively forecloses the possibility of overcoming these contradictions in any truly meaningful way (read: neither testimonio nor mestizo fiction). One could argue whether, with this kind of outcome, anything about this discussion is post-testimonial at all. Yet what these failed retreats yield is nothing but the assurance that testimonio itself has, yet again, not yet been fully thought through, and this is perhaps in the most critical sense the way the notion of the post-testimonial ought to be conceived.
Consider for instance the sheer number of edited collections on these topics that were published during this time (of which I mention only a few): Testimonio y Literatura (Jara and Vidal 1986), special edited collections from Latin American Perspectives (“Voices for the Voiceless”, Gugelberger and Kearney 1991), Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana (“La voz del Otro,” Beverley and Achugar 1992) and Dispositio/n (“Subaltern Studies in the Americas,” Rabasa, Sanjinés, and Carr 1994), The Real Thing (Gugelberger 1996), Teorías sin disciplina (Castro-Gómez and Mendieta 1998), El debate de la postcolonialidad en Latinoamérica (Toro and Toro 1999), and The Rigoberta Menchú Controversy (Arias 2001).
This disposition towards postcolonial theory is by no means limited to Latin American critics, but can also be seen at play within the field of Indian historiography itself. Most recently, Vivek Chibber’s book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, being itself exclusively a critique of the work of the South Asian Subaltern Studies group, has ultimately nothing to say about postcolonial theory whatsoever except to suggest in passing that what is ultimately wrong with it is its “poststructuralist orientation” and “preoccupation with textual analysis” (Chibber 2012, 8).
This essay was republished in Cuadernos Americanos only a year after its initial publication in Revista de crítica cultural. Unfortunately, the republished version fails to include the very pivotal paragraph from which this passage was taken. A translation of Moraña’s essay was also included in The Latin American Cultural Studies Reader (Sarto, Ríos, and Trigo 2004). However, it is of the later, amended, version that omits this critical passage cited here.
See for instance Neil Larsen, "Latin-Americanism without Latin America: 'Theory' as Surrogate Periphery in the Metropolitan University” (2006), as well as Roman de la Campa’s "Postcolonial Sensibility, Latin America, and the Question of Literature” (2008).
Gayatri Spivak’s (1985) subaltern reading of the legacy of widow sacrifice in colonial India is a paradigmatic example, and it culminates in the following exhortation to read subalternity in the present: “Between patriarchy and imperialism, subject-constitution and object formation, the figure of the woman disappears, not into a pristine nothingness, but into a violent shuttling which is the displaced figuration of the "Third World Woman" caught between tradition and modernization” (128).
See also Moreiras’s rejoinder to Cortez’s book (2014) wherein he recasts the critical stakes of contemporary Central American writing as beyond the ultimately overdetermined (Leftist and Conservative) parameters offered by cynicism.
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