It Was Heaven That They Burned
More than a decade after the scandal, what is notable about I, Rigoberta Menchú is not its exaggerations but its realism. Menchú had arrived in Paris emotionally brutalized, her feelings raw, her sense of urgency to tell a compelling story high. She spoke halting Spanish and had come from a society in which most information was transmitted orally, where hearsay and rumor, not documented fact, prevailed. Her memoir is filled with references to the ways paperwork was used to trick or entrap peasants, along with stories of endless days wasted by her father traveling to the capital to sign a succession of meaningless government forms. One passage in particular highlights the impotence of peasant patriarchy when set against state bureaucracy: Menchú recounts that, as a child, her father took her to the government land office, told her to remain absolutely still, and then took off his hat and bowed to a man sitting behind a typewriter. "That's something else I used to dream about—that typewriter," she recalled.
Added to this, she had just survived more than a year of hiding in exile, a period that demanded self-censorship. At the same time, her experience speaking to reporters and solidarity delegations before her Paris interviews had led her to realize the value audiences place on eyewitness accounts. The need to draw attention to Guatemala, which, compared to neighboring Nicaragua and El Salvador, was being ignored by the international press, must have tempted her to place herself at the scene of the many crimes she describes. Menchú did not know her interviews with Burgos would produce a book, much less an international bestseller. She had no experience with the publishing industry. And she certainly did not foresee that every one of her statements would be subject to fine-tooth scrutiny. And yet her narrative hews closely to a truthful chronology, and even her most serious embellishment—that she witnessed her brother being burned to death—"can be considered factual," according to her principal fact-checker.
Scholars commonly discuss I, Rigoberta Menchú as reflecting the communal nature of Mayan society, where oral storytelling blurs the line between individual and group experience. Historians Christopher Lutz and George Lovell reach deep into the past to argue that sixteenth-century indigenous accounts of the Spanish conquest were often written in the collective voice, and that when Menchú, on the first page of her memoir, cautions that her memory is poor and that the story she is about to tell is "not only my life, it's also the testimony of my people," she means it literally. "I can't force them to understand," Menchú repeated in her 1999 interview. "Everything, for me, that was the story of my community is also my own story. I did not come from the air."
But over the past decade, as greater light has been thrown on the process that led to the publication of I, Rigoberta Menchú, its author has emerged even more as a determined, distinctive individual. In one account, Elisabeth Burgos, then working toward a doctorate in ethnopsychiatry—a new discipline used to treat Paris's burgeoning immigrant population, many from France's former colonies—had wanted to interview a generic "Guatemalan Mayan woman," not Menchú in particular. And aside from supplying the testimony, Menchú was not involved in the transcription, editing, revising or translation of the book. Yet the two principals who did carry out those tasks—Burgos and Arturo Taracena Arriola, a Guatemalan historian and EGP representative in Paris—confirm that Menchú took control of the interview, speaking in a strong, certain voice. Though Taracena and Burgos suggested topics to be covered, they, Taracena reports, had to "rethink the outline" because Menchú's "narrative capacity" went "beyond what we had originally conceived.... There was a profound literary quality to Rigoberta Menchú's voice." The editors corrected Menchú's poor Spanish grammar and syntax, and arranged her account chronologically, but, Taracena remarks, the "book is a narration only by Rigoberta, with her own rhythm, with her own inventions, if there are any, with her own emotions."
Burgos withdrew during the interview process, applying her doctoral training in ethnopsychiatry to treat Menchú as a psychoanalyst would an analysand. That is, she gave Menchú time to talk. And considering her clandestine life in Guatemala and exile in Mexico, swinging between bouts of depression and episodes of intense political activity, Menchú needed it. "Everything was piling up together," she remembers of hiding in Guatemala City, "it was all on top of me." In bed for days at a time and refusing to eat, Menchú had few people to talk to. "With all the horrors that I had inside me," she says, "it would have been comforting for me to be able to talk to all the compañeros, or people who understood me, people who were sympathetic." But put to work as a servant in a house of nuns, her loneliness grew "worse, because as I washed the clothes, my mind was focused on the whole panorama of my past. There was no-one to tell, no-one in whom I could find some comfort." After fleeing to Mexico, she did have a chance to speak to delegations and reporters, but such encounters are often extremely formulaic, driven by pressure to raise awareness to what was taking place in Guatemala.