Monday, 13 September 2010

Made in Peru

The Shining Path, the peruvian terrorist group, started its activity in the 80s. I was a teenager at the time. I remember hearing now and then about them on the TV news, nothing special though. Later on, during Alberto Fujimori´s presidency, the group was once again on the news and I more attentive. Nevertheless, I think that up to now I was not fully aware of the extension of the conflict and its results. This summer I came across the history of the Sendero Luminoso and of Peru on a number of occasions. Peru is today a country trying to deal with its bloody recent past. Artists, writers and academics are also contributing.

I´ll start from the end. Last month I read about a young peruvian writer,
Santiago Roncagliolo. His family had to seek refuge in Mexico for political reasons, but his parents decided to return to Peru in 1979. His first memory from the country are “the dogs of Deng Xiaoping”. On the 25th of December 1980 the inhabitants of the capital Lima woke up to find the city centre decorated with the bodies of dead dogs hanging from street lamps. They carried labels that said “Deng Siao Ping, son of a bitch” (a hanging dog symbolizes in China a tyrant sentenced to death by his people). This is how the Shining Path announced the beginning of the armed struggle. Santiago Roncagliolo was 5 years old.
Santiago Roncagliolo
In his book
The Fourth Sword: the story of Abimael Guzman and the Shining Path, Roncagliolo attempts to reveal the personality of Abimael Guzman, ‘President Gonzalo’, the group leader. Without ever touching a gun, Guzman carried out the guerrilla operations between his group and the State of Peru, which resulted in almost 70.000 deaths. The majority civilians. The majority peasants. The Shining Path was held responsible for more than half of these violent and cruel deaths. The rest were attributed to the security forces, authorized by a democratically elected government to use the methods of the terrorist group. Through an investigation that lasted three years, which included interviews with Guzman´s ex-comrades and relatives, Roncagliolo drew this terrorist´s profile, producing a work compared by some to Truman Capote´s literary journalism. I read the book in a day. The next day I had in my hands Red April, a novel by Roncagliolo, a thriller where the meticulous District Attorney Félix Chacaltana Saltivana finds himself facing the Shining Path and the so-called democracy of the peruvian State at the time of President Alberto Fujimori. But also facing himself. Another book I couldn´t let go of until I finished it.

Aproximately one month before my ‘encounter’ with Roncagliolo, I was reading in the magazine of the
Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, e-misferica (Nr. 6.2 Culture + Rights + Institutions), an article by Gisela Cánepa-Koch, “The Public Sphere and Cultural Rights: Culture as Action”. The author, a professor at the Pontifícia Universidad Católica del Perú, started the article with the controversial creation of the Museum of Memory, a recommendation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which Germany - another country that had to come to terms with its uncomfortable past - was willing to finance. The peruvian government refused the offer. In the words of the Minister of Defense, Antero Flores Aráoz, a country like Peru, which is short of schools and hospitals and where many people are starving, “no necesita museos”. Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa answered with an article entitled “El Perú no necesita museos”. An open, balanced and moving text, where we read: “(...) They [the museums] also cure, not bodies, but minds, of the darkness that is ignorance, prejudice, superstition and all the flaws that cut communication between human beings, embitter them and push them to kill one another. Museums replace a vision about life and things that is small, provincial, mean, unilateral and closed-minded with a vision that is braod, generous and plural. (...) We Peruvians need a Museum of Memory in order to fight these intolerant, blind and stupid attitudes that led to political violence. So that everything that happened in the 80s and 90s never happens again”.

In her article, Gisela Cánepa-Koch states that the debate itself regarding the Museum of Memory is important and necessary for the construction of a healthy and democratic culture of citizenship. In her view, the museum should be an inclusive space, for the expression of different actors´ sensibilities, demands and forms of cultural action. To ignore the existence of multiple memories is to ignore the diverse forms of remembering and of culturally specific ways of dealing with pain. She goes on to suggest that museum language is not the only mechanism that may be used in this process and that the museum itself should promote other means of dealing with memories and can foster dialogue, such as literature, cinema, visual arts, music, ethnography. “Reconciliation is not about forgiveness or guilt, but about the possibility of the victim becoming an actor in the process of social reconstruction.”

A scene from the film La Teta Assustada
One of the films mentioned in Cánepa-Koch´s article is La Teta Asustada (The Milk of Sorrow), by
Claudia Llosa (Mario Vargas Llosa´s niece), which was presented in Portugal last June (watch the trailer). The film talks about an illness called “teta asustada”, in which a mother, who had been raped by the terrorists, passes on to the child, through breastfeeding, her fear and suffering. Fausta, the main character, lives in permanent fear and mistrust, choosing to be lonely. When her mother dies, and as she doesn´t have money to take care of the funeral, she´s forced to leave her comfort zone. This is where she´s finally able to challenge her fear. The film is marked by the beauty of the sound of the quechua language, spoken by the peasants of the Andes, the main victims of the peruvian guerrilla.
“A country that forgets its history is sentenced to repeat it”, we read on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission´s site. Peruvians have not opted for the comfort of forgetfulness. The country´s artists and intellectuals are claiming a role in this painful process. To quote Mario Vargas Llosa once again: “Progress is not only schools, hospital and motorways. It is also, and above all, that wisdom that enables us to tell ugliness from beauty, intelligence from stupidity, good from bad and tolerable from intolerable, what we call culture”.

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