Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Grave Secrets

"How do you make Guatemala look bland?" observed Scott accusingly of Kathy Reichs' novel while commenting on my earlier post.

Right now I am about half-way through this Guatemala-based crime-fiction story, rated by the above-mentioned commenter as one of the worst he's ever read, and the signs are I'm going to have to agree with him.

People argue about precisely how many words of The Da Vinci Code you have to read before you realise what utter tosh it is. In this case the picture of Reichs inside the front cover provided a massive clue, but I pressed on anyway. Like Scott I took it on only because I thought it might provide the kind of Guatemalan travel journal that only a visiting forensic anthropologist might produce.

The sister of my friend Tom the archaeologist ended up in this particular profession, picking through the charred bones of Branch-Davidians from Waco. Not a great conversationalist though. Tom hated physical anthropology the way Indiana Jones hates snakes, and was rusticated from Cambridge for a year for alleged possession of a tiny crib-sheet in the phys-anth Part 1 exam.

Before Scott's comment, my next post was to have been on Gil Courtemanche's masterful treatment of the Rwandan genocide in 1994: A Sunday at the pool in Kigali. Guatemala's own genocide is yet to produce any decent literature, but then epic murder is surely not obliged to foster great art. I was a bit wary of the fictional approach to Rwanda before I read Courtemanche's preface:

"This novel is a novel. But it is also an eyewitness report. The characters all existed in reality and in almost every case I have used their real names. The novelist has given them lives, acts and words that summarise or symbolise what the journalist observed while in their company...Some readers may attribute certain scenes of violence or cruelty to an overactive imagination. They will be sadly mistaken."

More on that book later. There is however, one truly remarkable account of the genocide in Guatemala: Masacres en la Selva: Ixcán, Guatemala, 1975-1982 by Ricardo Falla, a Jesuit, who also happens to be an anthropologist. For me the disconcerting aspect of this book is the way its author tries to present it as pure field research, adopting a dispassionate stance that allows the information and eyewitness accounts gathered in the refugee camps to make their own case.

Falla reveals how and why scorched earth came to the forefront of the counterinsurgency campaign. The Generals were ultimately following the counsel of a British counter-insurgency expert from the South-East Asian conflicts called Robert Thompson. His advice was essentially to exterminate rural communities that might be providing logistical support, albeit indirectly, to well-entrenched insurgents. Reluctant to allow their own soldiers to fully implement Thompson's theories in the field, the Americans advising Guatemala's military saw no reason however not to give it a go over there.

What began as "selective repression", adduction and torture in the late seventies had escalated to mass murder by the turn of the decade. Falla's narrative is indeed harrowing: in the Spring of 1982 a column of soldiers had encirlced a number of villages and was systematically wiping out their inhabitants in the most brutal of fashions. But then something odd happened. As the column entered another village intent on yet more mass-murder, news reached their officers of a golpe back in Guatemala City which had resulted in the deposition of thick and nasty Romeo Lucas García by a triumvirate led by Efraín Ríos Montt. Instead of chopping up the inhabitants and setting fire to them, the soldiers started to mill around and socialise with them. For a day or so there was real doubt about the transition. Should they stop or just carry on? Eventually they carried on, but this rather eerie interlude of comparative restraint uncovered by Falla's research is thought-provoking.

In Grave Secrets Reichs is mainly concerned with the output side of the massacres: bones with tell-tale grooves from machete blows. The men responsible were "mutants" she offers. Just how can they get to sleep at night?! She makes the rather obvious point that the victims were, in the main, poor peasants of Maya origin, but fails to add the less obvious, but still rather interesting point, that so too were most of the perpetrators (albeit as soldiers serving the metropolitan elite). This makes Guatemala's 'genocide' different.

For me one of the few failings of Courtemanche's book is his apparent sympathy for the view expressed by one his characters that the Rwandan genocide was essentially the same as the Holocaust, just a poor-man's version in which machetes were used because the Hutus couldn't afford gas chambers. There are always important differences.

Kathy Reichs is most often compared to Patricia Cornwell. In her recent Guardian interview she had a Miss Piggy-style elbow swipe at her rival: ""Patsy Cornwell is a writer, not a scientist...Because I write about what I do, rather than researching the field, it gives my books greater authenticity. Many fiction writers who put the science in don't get it right."

It's a shame she couldn't be bothered to do some basic research on Guatemala then. "Cerote!" for example, does not mean "I'll be damed"! (I prefer "serote" anyway.) However, I did learn a few facts about the Guatemalan justice system that I didn't know before, such as the lack of jury trials. (Though who knows if Reich has actually swotted up properly on this?)


scott said...

Hey, thanks for the follow-up post.

The Reichs book is also weird in that it fails to ever implicate the US, the British, and the Europeans in the events in Central America...but I guess that would be a bummer...gotta sell books!

Here's another great book about the Guatemalan genocide...I learned about this from a co-worker, who is a daughter of the Ladino family the book chronicles (though the last name has been changed). (The other daughter lives in Antigua, by the way, and runs a non-profit dedicated to exploration of Mayan and Ladino identity...email me if you are interested in the organization.) It's extraordinary in that, while it honestly deals with the exploitation of the Maya by the Ladinos, it never settles into easy left vs. right dichotomies...I think you would enjoy it.


El Blogador said...

Thanks! Looks very interesting.

Still haven't got round to watching Adventure Girl!

What's your email? It's not in your blogger.com profile.

scott said...

Check your email! (or see my profile--I've added my email address).