:: Article

A Kind of Entertainment

By Jessica Sequeira.

Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Human Matter, translated by Eduardo Aparicio (University of Texas Press, 2019)

An archive in La Isla

In 2005 the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa gained access to The Archive Recovery Project at La Isla, a complex of police buildings where the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office investigator had discovered a room full of papers, files, boxes and bags of police documents. He started to make continuous visits despite warnings to him about his work. What was he trying to achieve? So many hours spent digging around could be potentially either a waste of time or very dangerous. More than one hundred thousand people were killed by members of the Guatemalan army between 1960 and 1996, and about ten thousand by the various guerrilla groups in the same period, as the author himself notes.

What was his specific aim? What more does he wish to say about these events? Surprisingly, and refreshingly, the author does not know himself. Any generalisations about the country’s tragic history risk cliché, and our unreliable narrator has no pressing investigation or compelling reason to make such visits other than to write another book. Here is Rey Rosa (or a version of Rey Rosa) speaking directly to the reader, saying that he started going to La Isla because he was looking for a topic:

I began to frequent the Archive as a kind of entertainment, and as I usually do when I have nothing to write, nothing really to say, during those days I filled a series of notebooks, sketchbooks, and loose sheets with simple impressions and observations. Every morning for almost three months I traveled from the southernmost to the northernmost end of Guatemala City to visit the Archive.

He adds that a novel made of the millions of records might become “a coda for the singular danse macabre of our last century.” This sounds good on paper, though it also sounds like an impossible project, which of course it is, as Rey Rosa knows from the start. Human Matter (the macabre double meaning in the title challenges you to call it out for poor taste) is an agglutination, a piling up of facts, proper names, restaurants, conversations, media references that are circumstantial, as if to ask: what wouldn’t be? Infuriating and often pointless, the book derails from the questions an obviously political book might ask and attempt to answer, yet the impulse to hold down the text by the throat also makes the reader question herself and wonder whether she is an investigator or interrogator. Despite myself, the question pops into my head:

Is this about history or you?

Human Matter wants to be both a political conspiracy novel and the notebook of a writer at work. There are contradictions in the two projects, but the forms overlap to a surprising extent. The tedium of bureaucracy and the tedium of a pen pusher who doesn’t yet know exactly what he or she is trying to say dovetail into the same project.

Structurally, the work is split into four notebooks and five sketchbooks titled for their appearance (e.g. “Green Cover with Indian Motifs”, “Black Binding”, “Leather Cover, No Branding, No Name”). Inside are notes, lists, dialogues, mentions of books read, Bolaño-style directories of gruesome deaths clinically stated, without Bolaño’s horror and convincing grotesqueness: background research for an unwritten project, written as a kind of ongoing research journal to be stored as barrels of petroleum, never to be refined into the explosive fuel of thematic arguments.

Call it Kafkaesque (or Seghersesque) if you must, but here we have that familiar atmosphere in which an narrator wishes to achieve something, persists despite warnings, comes to the false conclusion that completion is just around the corner, feels frustrated when these hopes are dashed, suspects there are sinister or invisible influences throwing a stick in the works, and forges ahead anyway, before realising that it is not a stick but an entire forest that must be dealt with, and it is far from clear there is a way out, yet since one has come this far already, and out of sheer habit one will keep making the same movements, visiting the same offices, opening the same notebooks with gaudy covers, doggedly forging on.

Rey Rosa’s book deliberately does not cohere, which is both intriguing in its constant stimulus and irritating in its lack of drive. Sometimes the chaotic piling-up seems sympathetic in its mirror to our information-overloaded society (see buzzword: “archive novel”) while at other times it seems to be the sort of realism that piles on description because it doesn’t have much to say. Even the author doesn’t seem certain, or aware, of when his piling-on is important, and when it isn’t. His conceptual categories blur; he isn’t sure whether this is an archive about past violence in his country (which affected his family), or an archive about himself and his relationships (which happen to involve the country).

A state of abstraction, a state within the state

Bureaucratic procedures tend to be both familiar and deeply strange. Standing in line at the federal police or civil registry, passing nick-of-time photocopies to overworked funcionarios with bags under their eyes and liquefying mascara, nodding enthusiastically at the non sequitur thought-flights of these civil servants in the hopes you will hasten along the papers you need, shifting uncomfortably on your feet as the child in front of you begins to howl, setting off a chain of howls from all other children in the queue to create a counterpoint of howls around the room, thinking about the inferno of boiled milk, sweat and cleaning fluid you have entered — we have all been here, though we scrub our minds clean of these nowhere places as soon as we are out.

In offices and waiting rooms a particular quality of time exists, or rather a loss of the notion of time, the creation of a sort of insufferable lapse beyond discourse. Here is an ineffable “something else” that makes the everyday “real” world seem flattened, similar to the nature of the transcendent god that Indian saint-poets believed to inspire their devotional poetry. The blend of tedium and patience found in bureaucratic time possesses no divine qualities, yet there is a kernel of ineffable otherness about it, existing not in another plane above but lodged deep inside the system, a state within the state.

Rey Rosa’s book is saturated with boredom and waiting, and illuminated by the surprises that come of faith that something will come without expectation of anything in particular. Notably, however, boredom precedes his investigation, rather than results of it. It is a boredom that is chosen, not imposed; he has chosen to visit archives, he has chosen to look up papers, he has imposed himself on the state, rather than the other way round. His number was not drawn: he registered his own name.

Why do it? In part, it’s because in this way he feels he can root out a good story, dark secrets regarding a tragic historical past. In part, too, it’s because he wishes to deliberately enter the state of abstraction that in its way can approach a kind of bliss — the feeling that he is surrounded by stamped and signed piles of documents, the feeling that he has a basis of rationality (which can be used to pinpoint absurdities and cruelties), the feeling that faulty catalogue notwithstanding he is on the point of making sense of it all, the feeling that even if he comes out of the labyrinth empty-handed this location is important to history, the feeling that its presence now stamps his book and work as legitimate, “the feeling of rationality”.

Did he really… should I ask…

“A fiction”, reads the subtitle. The lines between the personal and the historical, fact and fiction, are obscured, a falsification intensified by the diary format. The writing of a journal is presented as a failure, but when we know the journal is also rewritten and invented, this seems coy. The claim to autofiction (or whatever word was used before this in another context: the edition was published in Guatemala as El material humano by Anagrama in 2009, republished by Alfaguara in 2017, and published in English translation in 2019) puts a nightstick to the kneecap of naïve readerly questions.

I couldn’t help but ask myself: Was the author’s mother really kidnapped? Did his girlfriend really start to break up with him during the writing of the book? Is it true his mother’s kidnapper worked at the archive and regularly spoke to him? Does he have a sister in Italy who lives with people surprised to learn Spanish is a Latin-derived language? Did he really receive a threat from an unknown caller while smoking marihuana one night? (and so on, and so on, and so on…)

Precisely because I don’t know the answers, and must set aside these concern, the author ends up not really mattering to me either. The “personal” form of the diary doesn’t seem personal at all, but as cold as an anonymous document. Instead I feel pushed to read this as an archive of events, polished and dramatised. Perhaps the author felt more comfortable with the fragmented format, and relieved people and ideas do not have to connect in obvious ways, so the reader can loosely go about drawing connections. But perhaps there is also a kind of failure to push something through here, a bad faith.

Something bothers me about this project, and it’s that the tone doesn’t begin from a drive, a conviction, an intensity that may then dissolve, but rather from the opposite—a pointlessness that goes about accumulating and shedding spurious justifications. There is a deep contradiction in wanting a great, important book, but also having no real direction in the writing. Here, if I may, a few more criticisms, bracketed off and filed…

More clever paradox than darkness

Rey Rosa is dealing with dark material, but the darkness isn’t felt in his prose. Mostly he dreams, drifts around and drinks with buddies, in between his half-hearted sleuthing: this could be an interesting contrast, but it isn’t described in any full-bodied way, and there’s no sense of either his daily life or the violence alluded to in the archives. Sometimes Rey Rosa goes in for paradox, asking for instance if he’s now become a policeman himself. Simply asking if you are akin to the horror you are investigating doesn’t make you so, especially when you are not really investigating. I was reminded of the clever boy in the class enamoured of his own paradox-making.

First-person fragmentary “novels” are very hard to pull off. At their worst they curate a list of readings and names for show, in a sort of ego-display to the reader which doesn’t entail much introspection, uncanniness or experimentation, let alone the courtesy of character and plot building. (I still like these; call me old-fashioned.) The latter may well be dispensed with, but if so, something must replace them to maintain interest. An urgent message, or a beautiful or interesting use of language, would cut it.

Rey Rosa drops in a range of literary references (Paul Bowles, Stefan Zweig’s Fouché, Bioy Casares on Borges, Kenneth Rexroth, Adam Zagajewski, Voltaire’s memoirs, Madame Blavatski, etc) but doesn’t really enter into dialogue with them or emulate their style. He writes clear, laconic prose with the matter-of-fact tone of a normal guy with connections to literature who just happens to be looking into state-sponsored terror. He is a clean writer but not an aesthetician; there is neither rage nor melancholy nor ecstatic delight in his tone, which goes along monotonously updating the ledger (just like the papers of the archive, again the obvious parallel: but why and for what?).

The lack of pretentiousness saves the book from its own plotlessness, but this very lack of a strong voice also poses problems. Short as the book is, one finds oneself hoping to reach the end. A sense of guilt begins to settle in, since the crimes are important, with implications that still need to be addressed. The supposed “importance” of content is not enough on its own, however; if it were, I’d read a history book instead. Rey Rosa seems concerned, with his references to all the right books and movies, to sounding up-to-date, but I wonder what the same book would have been if narrated by someone with more fire in his belly.

A pre-internet book reconsidered

Chronology is private anarchy in these diaries, yet perhaps the most unsettling moment comes in Rey Rosa’s new “Author’s Note” at the end, when suddenly we are oriented again in real time. All of this material, presented as solely available in dark shady archives managed by kidnappers, is now online and readily accessible . We can log onto the records ourselves, if we like. This book could only have been written in a very specific time — a time pre-internet. The lack of transparency, and simultaneous lure and repulsion of the musty old archives with a stranglehold on hundreds of thousands of citizens’ information, is a thing of times past. Much is still not known to us now, of course, but far less is in the shadows.

Such are the perils, or interesting challenges, of reediting and translating a book a decade after it was written. The act of recovering a book published a few decades ago through a translation, even one as good as Eduardo Aparicio’s, comes with many corollaries. This is a past that is recent enough to be familiar, yet not so recent that some of the circumstances have not dramatically changed. The archive novel as a format comes to take on a far different register in the internet age.

Human Matter makes the non-Latin American reader ask herself things that she might would not have otherwise. It delicately illuminates some of the pressure points of Guatemalan intellectual history and introduces a number of roles that have obsessed the country: the Indian, the police officer, the informer, the turncoat. The colloquialisms, the natural drifts of events are relaxing and perturbing by turns: things keep happening, people disappear and reappear. Perhaps any attempt to tell a story, to synthesise, would have diminished the density and richness of the material. There is too much unsifted information to truly enjoy the read, and the lack of any conclusion or aim seems unsettling, at times confused: but perhaps this is just as it should be.


Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator currently living in Santiago de Chile. Her works include the novel A Furious Oyster, the collection of stories Rhombus and Oval and the collection of essays Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age. Her most recent translations are Teresa Wilms Montt’s In the Stillness of Marble and an anthology of contemporary Chilean fiction.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 8th, 2019.