Tag Archives: Benjamin Avila

On Literature, Memory, and Travel

Machu Picchu: Perú

Machu Picchu: Perú

First of all, a shout-out to my young Canadian friend and fellow literary translator Liam Walke (not Liam Walker, the soccer star) of Montreal: I have just read the most recent installment of his travel journal from Perú, and I can’t state enough how much I am enjoying his sensitive and nuanced treatment of place, people, culture. Rather than quote him let me just send you directly to the source: http://westofthespine.wordpress.com/home/; scroll to the bottom of the page for recent postings, and I would recommend reading more than one to get a good sense of what he is doing. The site, which is actually called loves, leaves, lines, is being added to my links.

On second thought, let me give you a small taste (though it may seem such a small thing) of what touched me in this posting: “On Thursday, I went up to Racchi, a small village about thirty minutes outside of Cusco, to help a friend with her environmental education and art project for primary school kids. I’ve met a lot of children, and I can say that it is a different kid who grows up in an adobe house their father built; a different kid who wanders through their yard and down the hot dirt road to school past scavenging pigs and donkeys feeding on the grass above; a different child entirely who understands the cycles of the potato harvest; a different type of child whose first language is not Spanish but Quechua.”

He also has a passage about the political terror of past years, the vile and indiscriminate terrorism of the Maoist “Shining Path” and the perhaps equally vile and indiscriminate reprisals from the military (and then there’s always that chicken and egg question: which came first, the one oppressor or the other?).

Sam Baker

Sam Baker

I am reminded of the musician Sam Baker, whose music I came to know some years ago through my son Jonathan. Baker had the particular misfortune of being on a train to the ancient Inca site of Machu Picchu when a Shining Path bomb exploded, killing many passengers and taking away full use of one hand and a good portion of his hearing. Still he has managed to make some very affecting music, not just out of that experience but also a full American life richly lived and observed – a music at once “beautiful and broken,” as the NPR reviewer of his new CD Say Grace puts it. Click here for a taste of that music:


As for the Peruvian children Liam speaks of, living in a rural county in southern Indiana I have read numerous compositions by students who might understand the cycles of (if not the potato) the corn crop, and who have written with varying degrees of eloquence about their relationships with horses, dogs, cows, and the experience of growing up on a family farm. Still, there is little comparison between rural southern Indiana and rural Perú. My own experience between 1978 and 1980, in the poorer neighborhoods in both rural and urban Argentina, was quite startling to me in that respect. On my return to the country in June and July of 2005, my contact with its poor children was pretty much limited to subway stations.

None of which is to say that there is not a very real and increasing problem with poverty in the United States, not least of all in my own Perry County. The problem of growing inequality in this land of the free – and the deeper the inequality, the less the real practical freedom that one enjoys – is a source of frequent concern to me.

(I have written, by the way, a literary journal of that last visit to Argentina; bits of it appeared a while back in a pair of no-longer-publishing e-journals, and I still hold out some hope of having the whole thing available to the largest possible reading public sometime before the end of this decade. I gather, unfortunately, that the market for slow-moving, meditative literary journals of the sort are not in high demand in today’s crassly materialistic market. Mine is modeled after the epistolary style of Lucio V. Mansilla, to whom I address the “letters”: about whom see the pair of reviews of Passionate Nomads announced in my January blog. I may share some passages from it in a future posting.)


images[9]Recently I saw Argentine director Benjamín Ávila’s critically-acclaimed film Infancia clandestina (Clandestine Childhood), which is based on his own coming-of-age experience of early adolescence with an assumed identity and two committed revolutionary parents. It is at once a beautiful and harrowing film. While Ávila’s attitude is unapologetically revolutionary (as is made plain by a dedicatory note that precedes the final credits), it is unsparingly clear as well about the folly of the parents’ expectation that their son’s own revolutionary commitment should be stronger than the yearnings of first love. The scenes between that boy and the precious little girl he falls in love with (and she with him) are among the sweetest that I hope to ever see on small or big screen.

An elderly Argentine gentleman who was watching the film with me became rather agitated afterwards, not without reason given his own experience as the victim of multiple bombings in the period of the pre-military dictatorship. He resented any effort to make the perpetrators of those acts of violence, whose victims ended up being the very public that they rather stupidly thought would thus be inspired to rise up with them and overthrow the regime, should be portrayed with any degree of sympathy. Those “Communists,” he complained, were the reason for whatever excesses the military coup brought with it. And now the whole government is made up of “those people,” those leftists.

The historical reality is surely more complicated than that; correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t quite believe that, by virtue of the present government’s having been of the left all those years ago, it follows that they were all running around setting off bombs in hotels and other public places. Nor do I believe that anywhere near a majority of the “disappeared ones” of the military’s “dirty war” were guilty of the violences perpetrated by the red-eyed parents of our young and future filmmaker.

As I commented very respectfully to the gentleman, after his rant had run its course, while by virtue of experience he certainly has more right to speak of such things than I do, I would direct his attention to the contrary experience and testimony of credible others. Among them my friend María Rosa, two of whose progressive but nonviolent teachers – both of them nuns of the Sacred Heart – were disappeared during that time.

imagesSZY0CK5MAnd also, among others, the remarkable witness of Jacobo Timerman, a Jewish newspaperman whose memoir Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number recounts the torture and lengthy imprisonment he endured for daring to publish inconvenient truths about the abuses of both left and right. And more particularly, as made evident by the line of questioning he endured, for being a Jew and part (of course) of that infamous worldwide conspiracy and all. In the end, he barely escaped the country with his life. (Went on, I believe, to critiquing the misadventures of the Israeli right and left.)

In any case, while Ávila’s filmmaking did allow me to feel some human sympathy for the deluded and idealistic parents, I felt it mostly for the kids; and the film itself has the definite virtue of not white-washing anything: the feeling of human sympathy does not preclude evidence and judgment.

In any case, as always, there would seem to be plenty of guilt to go around. And as far as memory goes, it can be highly colored by our fears and our emotions. Sometimes one is too close to the center of things to see the larger picture.

Essays on Memory and Human Rights in the AmericasThis is pertinent to the subject of Marjorie Agosín’s anthology Inhabiting Memory: Essays on Memory and Human Rights in the Americas, published by Wings Press in San Antonio, Texas in 2011 and containing my translation of María Rosa’s “Minimal Autobiography of an Exiled Daughter.” I blogged about it on November 5, 2011 and in the process quoted from that essay and another by Argentine writer Julio Cortázar. This anthology, Agosín writes in her introduction, deals with such questions as “how we can inhabit memories and live within them” (p. xii). More specifically: “The primary purpose of this collection is to express how memory is articulated after the authoritarianism that governed the entire region and to explore the themes of torture, complicity and silence. It also addresses the problematic legacies of learning about memory – how to live with it, how to inhabit it, how to recover one’s identity as a human being.”

Chile and Argentina, with their similar yet divergent histories of dictatorship and democracy, are amply represented in these pages, but other essays range over geographies from Uruguay to Ecuador and Guatemala to the U. S. Mexican border – even, in the context of bearing witness to and remembering the victims of AIDS, a not specifically Latin American setting.

A common thread is the inherent instability of memory, the necessity to look at opposing memories and to examine both oral and written sources, to build or re-build collective memory by the very acts of investigation and witnessing. I will limit myself here to some general observations of Peter Winn’s in his essay “The Past is Present: Memory and History in Post-Pinochet Chile.”

“Human memory,”  he writes, “is both miraculous and mysterious. Why do we remember what we remember and forget what we forget? Why does some passing random encounter stimulate memories that we had not thought of for ages? Moreover, these memory cues vary so much from person to person. For Marcel Proust, it was the smell of the madeleine, a pastry from his childhood, that opened the door to remembrances of things past. For Alejandro, a Chilean-American student of mine, it was the posters on his parents’ walls that ‘reminded’ him of the Chile of the Allende years that he had never known, a Chile they had told him of as a child, a Chile that now only existed in those posters.

“For me,” Winn continues, “it is the Chilean music of that same era – the songs of Victor Jara or the Andean flutes of Inti Illimani – which I experienced as a young man, that is most likely to open the floodgates of memory, taking me back to a time when it did not seem utopian to think that we could change the world. In my memory, I walk again through streets filled with peasants celebrating a land reform that gave them the lands that their forefathers had worked for others, through suburban shantytowns filled with squatters confident that they would build a better future. I hear again the life stories of workers telling me how they were realizing their dreams. I taste again the empanadas (meat pies) that we shared and the rough red wine, and know deep down that I would do it all over again, that it was the time of my life when I felt most fully alive. These memories match that experience; they are vivid and strong, as if it were just yesterday.

Our memories are markers of who we are, where we have come from and what road we have followed to get here. They have a truth value that we take for granted. If we are sure of anything in this world, it is the truth of what we remember. After all they are our memories,” he writes, “something only we can validate, something no one can take away.

“Yet, oral historians and memory scholars have learned that even the seemingly surest individual memory may be unreliable, particularly if it is a memory of trauma” (pp. 52-3).

He goes on to talk about the “power of collective memory to reshape individual memories (pro and con)”: “Individual memories are shaped – and reshaped – by the dominant collective memory, which validates some while denying legitimacy to others …” (p. 53)

I am reminded of an essay I once read about the competing narratives of Jews and Palestinians in the contested Holy Land; the gist of the essayist’s conclusion was that until each side can listen to the other side’s historical narratives – each of which contains its validity – and experience empathy for the suffering of those others, there will not be nor can there be peace in the Middle East. That is a rough paraphrase, and certainly imperfect in its remembering.

imagesXU2Z72DJIn Winn’s opening sentence he refers to “that other traumatic September 11th in 1973” (p. 51) when, with at least the advice and counsel and perhaps military equipment from our own CIA, the duly elected democratic-socialist president Salvador Allende was overthrown by the dictator-to-be Augusto Pinochet. My own “memory” of that event is highly colored by my reading of Allende’s niece Isabel Allende’s La casa de los espíritus (The House of Spirits) which, while being a novel, contains an even-handed treatment of the history of a family divided by conservative and liberal politics and presents what I think is a pretty accurate reflection of what was happening on the ground during the days leading up to and subsequent to that military coup – at least it holds up pretty well, as far as memory allows me to attest, to the historical accounts I have read since then.

I know that the critically-acclaimed Chilean / Mexican writer Roberto Bolaño (born in Chile, but living and writing in and of Mexico) looks down on Isabel Allende as a second-rate literary imitator of the magical-realist school most famously represented by Gabriel García Márquez. Bolaño, though he died young, represents a younger generation writing distinctly not in the magical-realist tradition. I like Bolaño, and I don’t feel qualified to really judge the literary achievement of Isabel Allende, but if he is right and she is merely an imitator, I have to say nonetheless that it is a remarkable and delightfully readable imitation. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys historically-grounded fiction and would like to get a sense of the competing memories of what happened in Chile during the last century. I continue to think of it as a more than reasonable facsimile (correct me if I am wrong) and am a firm believer in the principle that fiction can be infinitely more true than much of what passes as “nonfiction.”