The Hope and the Horror

In 1953, a young Jean Franco set sail from Europe for Central America. She arrived in Cuba a few days after Fidel Castro’s ill-fated assault on the Moncada Barracks. Continuing to Guatemala, she ...

In 1953, a young Jean Franco set sail from Europe for Central America. She arrived in Cuba a few days after Fidel Castro’s ill-fated assault on the Moncada Barracks. Continuing to Guatemala, she witnessed the US-backed military overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz’s reform government, a coup that placed the country on the road to genocidal oppression. And yet, what Franco recalled later was not the despair. It was how Alaíde Foppa de Solórzano, the Guatemalan feminist writer, read her poems of hope amidst the rubble of political defeat. Shortly after returning to her country in 1980 from exile in Mexico, Foppa de Solórzano was kidnapped and “disappeared.” She was one of nearly 50,000.

The saga of Foppa de Solórzano, and those of others who challenged political authorities and artistic conventions, inspired Jean Franco’s remarkable career as a scholar, critic, witness, and partisan. In her critical work, Franco traced the parabola of literary production in Latin America through the Cold War. Shaping that curve was a movement known as “magical realism,” a label that obscures as much as it advertises. But as anyone who has read Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Jorge Amado knows, their juxtaposing of fantastic dreamscapes with gritty realities was more than a literary strategy. Their work attempted to imagine a way out of the wasteland of development’s failed promises.

Behind the aesthetic eruption were social and political upheavals. With a utopian style of writing was born a political sibling—the revolutionary armed struggle. Disenchantment with populist reforms in the 1950s turned a younger generation of activists, scholars, and writers towards more radical alternatives. In Argentina, firebrands planted bombs in factories;1 in Colombia, they took to the hills—where some are still fighting. And after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, the appeal of armed insurrection eclipsed the fading luster of reform. The Latin American literary “boom” writers’ affiliation with Che Guevara–style praxis is well known. While the aesthetic preferences of the artist did not always fit well with the bravura of the guerrilla fighter, both figures shared a faith in the power of voluntarism.

This tableau of engaged writers, social critics, and revolutionaries motivated generations of readers and activists worldwide—and inspired copycats and Third-Worldist derivatives. But among the legions of observers, scholars, and critics few could muster the combination of sympathy and insight that Jean Franco brought to a field that swept the world.

As Anglo scholars go, Franco is unusual. Not one to hide behind the veil of academic objectivity or let her outsiderness get in the way of her affections, she took sides. Franco is one of the few figures of the Anglo-American academic world capable of composing with the same sense of outrage and irony as her subjects without being pretentious or posturing.

But what happens to a critic when the literary and political fundaments of her subject fade away? What remains when the moment has passed? If Franco’s career traversed the arc of a utopian style of writing and revolutionary politics, those utopias now seem distant; the end of the Cold War, the restoration of civilian rule in most of Latin America, and the grip of the Washington Consensus have sealed the fate of revolutionaries and magical realists. In her last book, The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City (2002), Franco narrated the closure of an era of dreaming that hope might vanquish the horror. It was an eloquent obituary to the alliance of the avant-garde and the political vanguard.

The thing is, while the utopias are gone, the dystopias are still here. They have been given a new lease on life by the ways in which the Latin American state has withdrawn even the pretense of protecting basic liberties. It has fallen to poets and journalists, photographers and novelists, to undertake the task of chronicling realism without the magic. This is the subject of Cruel Modernity. It is a work that charts the coming of age of a new ideological and cultural moment whose horrors appear to have eclipsed hope.

Widespread, dehumanizing violence has become a fixture in Latin America. Franco explores it with moving compassion for its victims and perceptive observation of its causes. This may be Franco’s best book; it is certainly one that will have the most universal resonance. Transcending disciplinary genres of literary criticism or political commentary, Cruel Modernity is sophisticated yet raw, at once history, sociology, cultural analysis, and moral indictment. The result is haunting, elegant, and tough to read if one is not girded to deal with just how awful humans can be to others.

The thing is, while the
utopias are gone, the dystopias are still here.

What is cruelty, Franco asks, when liberalism is supposed to be triumphant? How should it be represented and chronicled? In most answers to these questions the image of the concentration camp and its horrors has loomed large. But the nasty side of modernity can take many forms; in Latin America it is not, Franco argues, an exception to a liberal norm or the result of some freakish breakdown of civilization. “To consider the exercise of cruelty in Latin America,” she observes, “moves the debate into a different and complex terrain that links [the Spanish] conquest to feminicide, the war on communism to genocide and neoliberalism to casual violence without limits.” The Latin American experience shows just how much inhumanity is sown into modernization. The architects and chroniclers of this process so often faulted the victims for their fate, seeing them as barbarians standing in the way of the civilizing process. This is how cruelty became, for Franco, “a scar on liberal society.”

What is so powerful about Cruel Modernity is that Franco contends with violence without retreating to abstract generalizations about the human condition or taking readers through a gruesome gallery of Hobbes’s state of nature. One facile abstraction is to treat cruelty as a timeless legacy of conquistador cruelty, that brainchild of the Black Legend and Elizabethan propaganda about Spanish tyranny.  Franco does not fall for static stereotyping. For starters, she makes clear that there has been a fundamental historic shift, a change in the structure of violence, which has in turn altered the position of critical artists and writers. There is no clear enemy, whether old Jockey Clubbing elites or autocrats in sunglasses. The macro-totalitarianisms are for the most part gone.

If being an executioner is
no longer a state monopoly,
the state executioner’s violent counterpart—the revolutionary—has also vanished.

The second shift she illuminates is the absence of a clear utopian alternative. If being an executioner is no longer a state monopoly, the state executioner’s violent counterpart—the revolutionary—has also vanished. Gone is the double helix of reactionary-revolutionary struggle. The result is a decentralized, localized, privatized, almost acephalous kind of brutality that mirrors a beheaded state. Violence like this has stimulated new imaginative strategies to portray this complex of atrocity.

And yet, the transitions to democracy and neoliberal reforms were supposed to bring to an end the long cycle of colonial carnage. The architects of the new era brazenly proclaimed the dawning of a new age in which everyone would become a citizen and live by the rule of law. Instead, the region has been swept by a new wave of violence. Some are still agents of the state, like Brazilian security guards and Salvadorean policemen. But more and more it has been the deliberate contracting of the state that vacated the social landscape for a new brand of enforcer, the drug lords, extortionists, and sadists who would make an Argentine death squad member green with envy. There is a new kind of dirty war going on in Latin America. The recent brand of “expressive crimes”—butchered women in the streets, cadavers of mutilated men dangling from bridges—are part of what she calls “mini-totalitarianisms” ingrained into a re-democratized Latin America.

A cadet from Guatemala's military academy (2006). Photograph by Virgilrn. Wikimedia Commons

A cadet from Guatemala’s military academy (2006). Photograph by Virgilrn. Wikimedia Commons

Here we have a land of inverted extremes in which the rule of law is fiction and homicide is the norm. Often, the carnage is treated as “unspeakable.” Franco will have none of it; there are words and images that can be summoned to understand what is going on and to illuminate its place in politics.

Cruel Modernity starts with the notorious butchery of tens of thousands of black Haitians in 1938 at the hands of local thugs working for General Trujillo, the President of the Dominican Republic. The border killing has been hush-hushed for a long time. Franco’s goal, however, is not to excavate the record, but to discuss how it has been recorded in novel form. Although she makes a short reference to the killing in Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat (more on Vargas Llosa below), true to Franco’s style, she steps around the obvious best-sellers to discuss, among other works, a little-known novel by Freddy Prestol Castillo, a Dominican judge, called El masacre se pasa a pie (The Massacre Walks By).

The story of the book is itself remarkable. Prestol had been dispatched as a frontier jurist. In the countryside, he found himself face to face with evidence of a horror perpetrated by the same state he served. By candlelight, he worked away on his fictional account of a man who wrote a manuscript that he gave to his mother, who buried it under a patio. By the time the pages were exhumed, they were a worm-eaten mess. Prestol’s tale of a book within a book, of a novel that became a corpse only to be resurrected in a new condition, serves as a kind of parallax on a brutal dictatorship. It reminds readers that, in Franco’s words, “a historical narrative is not a seamless curve toward the present but the broken remains that are buried and waiting for their resurrection.”

As Franco surveys the human wreckage, she warns that Mexico is Latin America’s “mirror of the future.”

Franco’s story culminates with a portrait of bloodshed sweeping Mexico. Once touted as a showcase of neoliberal modernization, Mexico’s revolutionary model now lies in ruins. Escalating drug trafficking, a collapsing agrarian economy, and free trade in weapons has fueled a macabre form of violence meted out especially to women. Pictures of mutilated girls provide evidence of “unfinished lives [that] foreground the unfinished business of bringing the perpetrators to justice.” These infamous scenes of mass sacrifice are the proof of what Sergio González Rodríguez has called a “femicide machine,” the misogynistic ferocity of gang warfare. Famed for his creative nonfictional account, Huesos en el desierto (Bones in the Desert), González Rodríguez is the archetype of the new Latin American writer-agitator who is willing to record the butchery at a time in which journalists have become bull’s-eyes for the new quasi-formal repression. He also appears as a character in other writers’ novels, including Roberto Bolaño’s apocalyptic 2666, a work which, Franco explains, “recorded … the end of the human as such and the ferocity of misogyny that underwrites it.” As Franco surveys the human wreckage and writing, she warns that Mexico is Latin America’s “mirror of the future.”

Tales of haunting, loss, and broken time waiting to be reconnected to the present run like currents throughout Cruel Modernity. It falls to writers and artists to pick up the pieces, in some cases literally body parts, left by the state and private henchmen. It is no wonder that melancholy—a state of loss that leaves those affected by it unable to mourn and relinquish the dead—hangs over the book. What happened on the borderlands of Haiti and the Dominican Republic “foreshadowed things to come,” notes Franco. Repression, extermination, and congenital fear have never been exceptional to Latin America’s modernity: rather, it was vital, “for nation formation, to identify an enemy.”

Much of the book grapples with the ways in which that enemy—the enemy within—was made alien to modernity. Nowhere has this been clearer than in the ways in which the “Indian” has served the mythopoeia of primitivism to justify their eradication. Franco argues, for instance, that there has been a special fixation with cannibalism. The image of the savage slicing the throat of the gentleman is an old one. But the 1980s gave it a new twist in Peru and Guatemala, where ethnocide and contempt for “primitives” drew from some deep taproots. In Peru, three quarters of the victims of the civil war were peasants whose mother tongue was Quechua.

One example braids the ancient disdain for the internal enemy with the icon of Latin American magical realists. Franco examines the famous case of a killing of eight journalists in the indigenous village of Uchuraccay. She relates the saga evenly and compassionately, in part to lay the groundwork for an analysis of Mario Vargas Llosa’s official investigation of the atrocity. The Nobel Prize–winning magical realist is now Franco’s foil. His report “Inquest in the Andes,”2 published in the New York Times (which formed the basis of the acclaimed novel Death in the Andes) portrayed the highlanders as archaic holdovers of a forgotten era, in thrall to magico-religious beliefs that led them to hack a bunch of writers to death. Vargas Llosa, a careful student of Peru’s literary representations of indigenous people, could not have been blind to the ways in which he was recycling images of indigenous people as “innately” (the italics are Franco’s) violent in order to present a Peru irreconcilably divided into two cultures. But whose story belonged in Vargas Llosa’s narrative—the eight stricken journalists or the unmentioned 135 villagers, forgotten in the scandal, who’d been killed by fanatical revolutionaries in the days leading up to the tragedy?

Mario Vargas Llosa at Göteborg Book Fair (2011). Wikimedia Commons

Mario Vargas Llosa at Göteborg Book Fair (2011). Wikimedia Commons

Of the indigenous targets of political violence, the majority were women.  This too has been forgotten. Their deaths were laced with an especially sexualized terror. Rape was “an instrument of genocide,” says Franco of Guatemala. The evidence is horrifying. But it was taboo until the Peruvian Truth Commission addressed the ties between manliness and ferocity head on. Franco’s reading shows how rape was understood as “a mark of sovereignty acted out on the body of women.” It degrades and extends the nightmare to family, children, and communities who are often forced to witness the rape. In recent years, truth commissions, critics, journalists, and increasing numbers of survivors have been testifying and archiving the degree to which the feminicide of Ciudad Juárez is anything but a local exception. Franco shows how writers have brought the violence against women out of the shadows. In doing so, they juxtapose “cruel banality” and incurable sadness; the effect is at once anesthetizing and horrifying.

The ubiquity of representations of violence may make it the single most important subject in Latin America’s public sphere. But the discussion of violence has done more than give voice to the tortured and to the families of lost relatives. The killers, sadists, and torturers have also had their say. “Testimony is anything but transparent,” Franco reminds her readers. The Kaibiles, a murder squad of the Guatemalan army, singled out by the truth commission for its macabre celebrations after razing a village is now freelancing for Los Zetas in Mexico. Youtube videos show them in the Congo as, ironically, “peace keepers.” These digital relays include training videos and running commentary from “young Latin American men who yearned to join them.”3 The print media, too, have made a swift business out of the confessions of torturers and killers. The best known is the Argentine naval officer Adolfo Scilingo’s extended interview with the journalist Horacio Verbitsky in 1996, published as The Flight, named for the military aircraft that dropped prisoners over the River Plate. This best-seller spawned a torrent of copycat confessions, thereby prompting a “Scilingo effect.”

If savagery has lost all broader purposes—either in the service of order or social change—where does that leave the writer and artist?

Violence of this kind is often seen as the preferred device of counter-revolutionary forces. But some utopians also relied on higher ends to justify vicious means. In a chapter called “Revolutionary Justice,” Franco considers the legacies of Che’s 1964 advice to some compatriots as they left Cuba to start a foco in Argentina: “From this moment on consider yourselves dead,” he declared. Talk about self-fulfilling prophecies! Sure enough, it was not only this little band that wound up in graves, but untold thousands of others, culminating in the sacrificial masculinity of Sendero Luminoso in Peru, whose novelistic and journalistic portraits are the center of the chapter. Another figure, the philosopher of “revolutionary violence,” Abimael Guzmán, was inspired by a character in The Tempest to amalgamate Christian prophecy, Maoism, and some dubious Incan legends into the demand for a “quota of blood.” Guzmán met this quota by garroting, hanging, and strangling his enemies to rid the earth of rivals by desecration. A new generation of journalists, like Gustavo Gorriti and Santiago Roncagliolo—the author of a brilliant biographical account of Guzmán called La cuarta espada—have sought to make sense of the senselessness. As Roncagliolo said of the Senderistas, “what gave them strength was also their greatest weakness. They could not control love, hatred, treachery.”

If savagery has lost all broader purposes—either in the service of order or social change—where does that leave the writer and artist? Bearing witness seems an obvious answer, though it is almost a cliché at this point. One task, in Franco’s story, is to connect the present to the past. Writers and artists can remind us of the broken, unfinished lives among us. They can also represent the “ghostly hauntings” of those who no longer do. For instance, one of the most infamous detention centers in Buenos Aires, the Naval Mechanics School known by its acronym ESMA, had a dark room. There, one of the prisoners, Víctor Becerra, developed black and white photographs of fellow inmates for the prison’s files. These negatives were smuggled out, and eventually became the life work of Marcelo Brodsky, who transformed the photographs into memory art. It would be hard to underestimate the power of Brodsky’s work. His books and exhibits became important in the campaign to seize ESMA from the military and turn it into a museum. His albums of interrupted lives now circulate publicly, transforming the private melancholy of grief-stricken families into public discourse.

Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada, Buenos Aires. Argentina (2006). Wikimedia Commons

Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada, Buenos Aires. Argentina (2006). Wikimedia Commons

For all the talk of Latin America’s new start and “emergent market” euphoria, the spectacle of violence persists. There are the horrors of northern Mexico and the fear in Guatemala. But there are also incongruous and jarring scenes, reminders that the talk of reconciliation may have papered over deep social and cultural divides. Franco reminds readers of the scene that greeted General Pinochet when he returned to Santiago from his house arrest in London on March 3, 2000. Pinochet was met by the families and activists of the tortured and disappeared, waving placards with cheap grainy photocopies of old snapshots of missing relatives. Nearby were the Pinochet fans, with reproduced images of their own—T-shirts bearing stenciled color images of their smiling idol. Two pasts, two presents, two purposes of photography.

In addition to these divergences, there are also strange historical convergences. Patricio Guzmán’s masterpiece film, Nostalgia for the Light, recorded in the Atacama Desert, follows women wandering in the rubble, looking for the remains of children, siblings, and husbands scattered across an uninhabitable landscape by Pinochet’s soldiers. In the meantime, in the desert giant telescopes rove the universe, charting its celestial history. These two separate times, people poking at the rocks while others gaze at the stars, come together when the viewer learns that one of the astronomers is the daughter of disappeared parents and is herself now a mother; she insists that just as the time of the stars lives on, so too does the memory of her parents. Still, as Franco notes about Nostalgia for the Light, what gives the film its incredible anguish is the brevity of the lives destroyed by a military regime brought into sharp relief by the contrast to the durability of universal time.

Those who proclaim that cruelty is impossible to communicate mistake the incurable melancholy cruelty produces for the futility of understanding. Franco prefers a different moral. It is not the unspeakability of the crimes that stands out. Rather, it is the inescapable gap between the readers or viewers, who are free to be somewhere else, and their subjects. “That,” she concludes, “is a huge problem that no scholar can evade.” Cruel Modernity challenges readers to think and speak about the lived experiences of death and torture as well as their uses and representations. In the vast literature about atrocity and holocaust, Jean Franco is one of the few scholars whose prose connects the stories of victims, the artists and writers summoned to represent them, the author, and her reader. Some may find Cruel Modernity dispiriting. But there is no denying its majestic pathos. icon

  1. Jeremy Adelman, “Post-Populist Argentina,” New Left Review, I-203, 1994.
  2. Mario Vargas Llosa, “Inquest in the Andes,” New York Times, July 31, 1983.
  3. “Kaibiles en el Congo,” YouTube, uploaded on June 20, 2011.
Featured image: Augusto Pinochet (1982). Wikimedia Commons