A Catalog of Cadavers

A Catalog of Cadavers

Claudia Salazar Jiménez sets out to conjure the experience of atrocity in Peru with her debut novel, Blood of the Dawn. The result is disquieting—though not in the way you’d expect.


¿En qué momento se había jodido el Perú?”: At what moment had Peru fucked itself up? This question, which famously interrupts the opening paragraph of Mario Vargas Llosa’s 1969 novel Conversation in the Cathedral, has many answers.

You could cite 1532, the year rapacious conquistadors arrived to decimate the self-sufficient Inca economy. Or the nation’s early postindependence period (1824—1845), when its blanco elite began colonizing Peru’s highland Quechua majority. You could cite 1948, the year Gen. Manuel Odría overthrew Congress to begin his eight-year dictatorship. Or 1968, the year Gen. Juan Velasco Alvarado engineered his coup. These answers all have their merits. But it’s clear, whether you’re on the left or the right, that the day modern Peru really fucked itself up was May 17, 1980, when a fringe guerrilla group called the Shining Path stole ballot boxes in the town of Chuschi and burned them in the public plaza. This act of vandalism marked the start of the “People’s War,” which within two decades would leave about 70,000 dead.

The “time of fear” has understandably haunted much subsequent Peruvian fiction. Vargas Llosa grappled with the Path’s fanatical impulses in his rather conservative novels The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (1986) and Death in the Andes (1993). The protagonist of Daniel Alarcón’s more recent Lost City Radio (2007) searches for “disappeared” people in the aftermath of a civil war. Claudia Salazar Jiménez’s debut novel Blood of the Dawn, published in November by Deep Vellum, marks a departure within this tradition. Not content with addressing the causes and effects of Peru’s civil war, Jiménez sets out to conjure the experience of the atrocity itself. The result is disquieting, though not at all in the way you’d expect.

* * *

Founded in 1970 by a philosophy professor named Abimael Guzmán, the Shining Path (or Sendero Luminoso) got its start in Peru’s interior highlands. It was an area of “crushing poverty and racist oppression,” writes historian Marc Becker, and Guzmán set out to organize the disenfranchised Quechua population, who were far “removed from a small urban elite that defined the country’s economic, political, and cultural life.” That makes him seem noble, a Peruvian Subcomandante Marcos. But Guzmán’s model was more Khmer Rouge than the Zapatistas. Using the brutally simplistic metaphors of “disease” and “cleansing,” he sold campesinos on the belief that their emancipation required the total annihilation of bourgeois Peru. Ritualistic violence was central to this agenda. As Sendero grew from a small group of bandits to a national terrorist threat, it left behind a wake of delirious horrors. Reporting in 1993, Alma Guillermoprieto drew up this litany:

[Sendero] has bombed police headquarters and municipal offices, gas stations and middle-class apartments…paralyzed the country with so-called armed strikes, and set fire to bus drivers who defied its orders…. It has murdered peasant families and leftist leaders. Most often, the victims are killed in full view of their family or community. Sometimes they are hanged and sometimes shot, but often an execution-squad member—in many cases a woman—delivers the coup de grace with a knife.

And such are the keys themes of Jiménez’s novel: gender, violence, and their twisted relationship during the civil war.

Opening in the early ’80s, Blood of the Dawn tracks the lives of three women—Modesta, Marcela, and Melanie—who get involved, in different ways but to their common detriment, with the Shining Path. Jiménez has carefully fashioned her three main characters to reflect a cross-section of Peruvian society: Modesta is a Quechua peasant whose village is terrorized by Sendero; Melanie, an upper-class journalist who covers the highland violence; and Marcela, a Lima social worker who joins the Path in response to government apathy. Jiménez’s approach to these characters is at once ironic and tragic—ironic because, for example, the middle-class blanco joins a social revolution that terrorizes campesinos; tragic because what else could she do?

The novel’s panoramic scope is also reflected in its form. Composed of very brief and stylistically varied sections—confession, interrogation, fever dream, prose poem—Blood of the Dawn rapidly switches between narratives, creating a sort of social collage. This technique has been well-handled by recent writers like Michael Ondaatje and John Berger, who pack enough sensual immediacy into a few pages for our imagination to fill in what’s merely outlined. Jiménez, by contrast, is a squarely didactic writer. Her instinct is to explain, not dramatize. Here is Marcela deciding to join Sendero:

I did what I could to reconcile domestic life with revolutionary struggle but there wasn’t the time…. Having a husband and daughter was holding me back…. When we achieved our main objective and I got to see my daughter again, I would show her the world we’d built. No more hunger, no injustice, no barefoot little children…. Bread on everyone’s table. Everyone everyone everyone. We wanted to transform it all.

This reads like propaganda, not consciousness. And that’s partly Jimenez’s point: Political fanaticism, she wants to show us, denies the complexity of human experience. Marcela is a flat character because she’s sublimated her self into the cause. This flatness can even be described as a realist device. Compared to Vargas Llosa’s Alejandro Mayta, Marcela is a cardboard cut-out; but she, far more than him, sounds like the Sendero militants you actually come across in the archive, and can still hear on YouTube, dreamily unrepentant after all these years. Put another way, Jiménez has taken the militants at their word. Instead of humanizing Marcela, she presents her in full fanatic opacity. This can be read as a political provocation: There are some impulses, Jiménez is suggesting, that liberal rationalism just can’t understand.

At least that’s the idea. In truth, Jimenez wants to have it both ways. She gives Marcela the voice of fanaticism, but tries to explain her descent into it in conventionally rational terms. In early sections of the novel, we learn of Marcela’s misogynist husband and of her water project, for which she’s unfairly lost government funding. Taken together, these scenes of frustration amount to some three pages. Immediately after, Jiménez bundles Marcela into her first Sendero rally:

The auditorium was teeming with workers, teachers, and students. Seated at the center of the table was a man with thick tortoiseshell glasses that offset a calm, neutral expression.… When the professor with the thick glasses stood, his fluent delivery made me forget everything else. The things he said and the vigorous way he said them didn’t fit with his academic bearing, and the brilliant way he weaved together ideas and connected them to reality was unsurpassable…. The tapestry kept growing in a dance of ideas: class struggle, revolution, starting in the countryside, Mao, Lenin, Marx, Communist Party.

A few pages later, Marcela is fighting in the highlands.

What are we to make of this instant conversion? Marcela is an educated women involved in social work; surely it’s too much for us to believe that one speech by Abimael Guzmán could get her to become a guerrilla. Jiménez might respond that fanaticism is incomprehensible. If so, why frame Marcela’s conversion within those familiar clichés of marital and occupational discord?

Another consequence of this deadpan backstory is that it dampens the real drama to follow. Marcela receives maximum stage time in Blood of the Dawn. Both victim and perpetrator, she is seen—in graphic sections—traveling the shining path from indoctrination to imprisonment, and partaking in mass murder along the way. Here, for instance, is her description of a Sendero massacre:

how many were there it hardly matters twenty came thirty say those who got away counting is useless crack machete blade a divided chest crack no more milk another one falls machete knife dagger stone sling crack…they reek your feet their cunts sebum machete blow mud the floor chop chop penises testicles for your mold mother to eat up open your mouth crack.

The destruction of life is here reflected in both form and content. But Marcela was never life-like to begin with, and, untethered to a developed character, Jiménez’s formally striking depiction of violence elicits no emotional response. Worse, it seems to undercut any attempt at more ambitious political-aesthetic ideas, leaving us with the irritating suspicion that Jiménez has just been lazy all along.

Having made that criticism, I already hear a possible response by the Scottish novelist Muriel Spark: that when “the sympathies and the indignation of a modern audience are aroused by a play or a novel,” then those viewers or readers “feel that their moral responsibilities are sufficiently fulfilled by the emotions they have been induced to feel.”

Fair enough. Spark believed that satire and ridicule were more effective tactics of critique, and while those are hardly applicable here, her central point—that art should perform intellectual rather than sentimental work—could be cited in Jiménez’s defense. The problem is that Jiménez has done little to explain why Marcela joined (or might not have joined) the Path, other than those three pages. “The presence of women in Shining Path was undeniable,” the historian Isabel Coral Cordero has written, “even though [it] derived more from their own expectations and desires to enter new spaces of participation than to a senderista sensibility that incorporated gender interests.” This partly explains Marcela’s decision. But Jiménez has taken the fact for granted, rather than dramatized or interrogated or even expanded it. Along with the opening frustrations, she parades a few half-baked ideas about sexual suppression and the tyranny of childbearing in paragraph-length summaries, but these are too glib (almost perfunctory) to take seriously. Besides, isn’t her agenda to subvert easy understanding?

In short, Jiménez couldn’t decide whether her characters were fated for calamity, or whether they brought it on themselves as the result of their own agency. As a compromise, she’s gone in for unflinching depictions of the most extreme circumstances, as if naming the facts—along with a little pop psychology—were enough.

* * *

Blood’s plot follows the logic of tragedy but reads like a B-grade film. Over the course of the book, Modesta, Marcela, and Melanie end up in the same Quechua village. Then, they are raped within the span of five pages—Melanie by Sendero militants (she is there to report on the brewing violence and is thus considered a “white traitor”); Marcela and Modesta by the army (which has arrived to “take back” the village from terrorists).

From a historical perspective, this is entirely believable. Peru’s armed forces systematically abused thousands of women during the civil war—and despite their ostensible feminism, so did Sendero’s militants. Depicted without rhetoric, these scenes of rape would have thus been an enormous indictment of macho Peru. But Jiménez resorts to formal bravura: Instead of sensitively attending to her characters, she repeats the same passage of text (with a one-line aberration in Melanies) to portray all three rapes. The repeated passage only confirms our moral suspicions:  

She was a lump on the floor. It didn’t matter what her name was, they were only interested in the two holes she had. Sheer emptiness to be filled up. No questions or need for replies. They knew all there was to know about this lump. But really, she meant nothing to them. Her four limbs were enough: with them she could be held down, immobilized, restrained.

We get the point: Peruvian machismo is nonpartisan. But what does Jiménez’s narrative anaphora really achieve? It seems like a cleverly apt way of cutting straight to the tragedy—but by calling such attention to itself, the form’s cleverness is precisely what banalizes its subject. If Jiménez were morally serious, she would have stopped at the first sentence. Everything that follows is a performance.

* * *

In 1959, Gabriel García Márquez published an essay titled “Two or Three Things About the Novel of ‘la Violencia.’ ” The violencia of his title referred to the 300,000 deaths claimed by a decade of Colombian political violence. Some years later, Márquez would write what remains one of the most famous depictions of political atrocity in world literature. But in this essay, he railed against novelists who callously and fervently depicted mass murder. Such books, he reflected, simply produced a “catalog of cadavers.” In their place, he called for a more grounded, self-conscious literature:

Perhaps it is more valuable to honestly relate what one believes oneself capable of telling by virtue of having experienced it, than to relate with the same honesty what our political position indicates should be told, even though we would have to invent it.

Márquez’s point wasn’t that violence was beyond literary depiction. He just felt that zealous descriptions of “decapitations, castrations and rapes” simplified the experience of living under violencia. Nor did they explain the political atmosphere that allows for impunity or address the social forces—forces that likely persist in peacetime—that had been unleashed. What they did instead was to simplify the memories of murdered people (their “characters”) in the name of art. Such books indulged violent fantasies under the pretext of realism and out of an imagined obligation to be brave.

It’s not hard to see how Márquez’s criticisms apply to Blood of the Dawn. For obvious reasons, Jiménez is outraged at history. But rather than explore the personal consequences of this feeling, she’s projected her anger onto a historical canvas. In her translation’s afterword, Elizabeth Bryer cites the historian Cecilia Mendez G. writing that, though “the Shining Path insurrection has had an indelible effect on Peruvian society, it is a period that many Peruvians, especially those who live in the capital, do their utmost to forget.” We will need another novel to teach us how to remember.

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