Aamer Hussein reviews Human Matter by Rodrigo Rey Rosa

Translated from the Spanish by Eduardo Aparicio (University of Texas Press, 2019)

In a humorous set piece in Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s intricately patterned novel Human Matter, the narrator is questioned about his Guatemalan origins by his naively racist Italian hosts: they can’t quite understand exactly what and who Guatemalans are. Clearly, Rodrigo responds, he and his sister are not Maya, though they have some Maya in them. They have European names and are descendants of the conquistadors: “We are also the bad guys.”

This episode follows a trail of throwaway comments about the Mayas of Guatemala. At a seminar on violence, power, and politics that Rodrigo attends early in the book, Dr Novales, who teaches the course, delivers a series of axioms on the general causes of violence. During a Q&A session, the narrator mistakenly questions him about the participation of Mayas in guerrilla activity. Had the revolutionary leaders considered the “possible risk of a government reaction that would determine the extermination of broad sectors of the Indian population?” The speaker dismisses his intervention as “extremely unfriendly,” and another onlooker, observing that Indians had been part of the struggle, calls him paternalistic.

As the novel begins, Rodrigo is visiting the Guatemalan Police Archives where records that reveal evidence of crimes against humanity are being catalogued and archived. Rodrigo’s initial idea of crafting a novel—or perhaps a history of the Guatemalan police in the twentieth century—out of the material, is soon transformed under pressure of circumstance. Authorities, suspicious that he might be investigating the kidnapping of his own mother more than three decades before 2007 (the year in which this novel is set) causes them to suspend his visits. But he is already on a trail that will lead him to examine the interfaces of power and weakness, good, evil, and moral integrity.

In an anthology of essays a young archivist lends him, Rodrigo reads (in an article published in 1924):

The Indian cannot be a citizen. As long as the Indian is a citizen, we Guatemalans cannot be free. Those poor wretches have been born slaves, they carry that in their blood, it is the heritage of centuries, the cursed fate that the conquistadors imposed on them.

The narrator’s search leads him to the story of a man of Indian birth and little formal education: Benedicto Tun, who created the identification bureau in 1922, and whose “participation in the investigation of criminal acts has been invaluable in the most important inquiries carried out by the police.” His “long and peculiar trajectory in a country with a political history as turbulent as Guatemala is something of a feat.” A young archivist, Ariadna, suggests that Tun’s career could serve as a connecting thread for Rodrigo’s account. (Note here that the name of this incidental character is an allusion to Ariadne, the mythical guide to the labyrinth in which our latter-day Theseus will find himself.)

Tun is long dead, but his son and namesake, a criminal lawyer, consents to a series of long conversations with Rodrigo. Though there will be no cohesive account, the episodic biography of the older Tun becomes the lens through which the narrative sporadically explores the unexpected humanity and integrity of a man who refused to compromise and was consequently consigned to the oblivion that history can create.

The novel—so fragmentary and discursive have some critics found it that they don’t see it as a novel at all—is composed of a series of notebooks. It begins with twenty-three pages of records of deaths, murders, brutalities, before it embarks on its circuitous narrative path. The notebooks that follow are composed of Rodrigo’s day-to-day domestic and social activities—his encounters with his part-time lover B+, his daughter Pia, his family and friends; his readings of Voltaire, Borges, and Zagajewski, lengthy quotations from all of whom often propel the novel’s discussions of violence and power; a fleeting reference to Asturias, the Nobel-winning Guatemalan author who also spoke derisively of Mayas; and memories of his mother’s abduction. There is a series of dreams, in which the author’s past life comes back to haunt him, particularly in the form of the late Paul Bowles, Rey Rosa’s mentor and translator, and in phantasmagoric reenactments of their encounters in Morocco.

Here the narrative loops back to Rey Rosa’s adventurous and quasi-legendary career. The “narrator” of Human Matter is, in spite of his obsessive erudition, not someone who seems terribly concerned with fame or fortune. There is, instead, a diligent pursuit of information, an almost detached fascination with the purveyors and pawns of power he meets; dalliances with his lover and his child, financial hesitation over a trip to Italy, and a concern with his aging mother, who at the end of the novel is suffering from a kidney problem. Even in his long peregrinations into other people’s writing, particularly the Argentinians Borges and Bioy Casares, and Voltaire, who seems to preside over the book, the authorial persona has a certain youthful earnestness which makes him appear rather younger than his creator.

It is, as noted above, in the dream sequences that we encounter the illustrious writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa whom we know from biographical sources: his sojourn in Morocco as Bowles’s protégé, his meetings with Bowles’s posse of Moroccan writer friends, his easy familiarity with North African ways, and a resulting disdain for stereotypes about the Muslim world. Here we’re reminded of Chaos: A Fable, another recent Rey Rosa novel published in a translation by Jeffrey Grey earlier this year. Chaos takes us back to his North African interests, and depicts another voyage in the labyrinth of power, telling of the encounter of a “Mexican writer” (another modest surrogate for the author) with a young Moroccan, Abdelkrim, and a typically ambiguous involvement with radical Islam.

The novels are entirely different in narrative technique. Chaos at times echoes Bowles’s faux-naif forays into North African modes of storytelling, at others morphs into futuristic near-fantasy. But the dream sequences of Human Matter reflect or foreshadow the other work. In both, we find a documentation of brutality and violence which leave us pondering, with the author, over a quote on good and evil by Zagejewski: “To describe varieties of good and evil—there lies the great task of the writer.”

Upon which the ever-doubting narrator reflects:

And what if the new varieties of good and evil were to obliterate the old ideas about good and evil, of what one or the other can be or become in each person’s subjectivity? Even the best of us—and I am thinking of “us” in the widest possible sense—needs to constantly choose between good and evil. Then, it becomes obvious that the choices are never identical, nor can they be, because their circumstances—of time and place at the very least—are necessarily different.    

Both stories end with a kind of disclaimer that echoes the dilemma of the writer’s “great task.” Human Matter concludes with Rodrigo deciding that he will stop writing about the archive; cameras will do a better job than he ever will, in a documentary yet to be made by one of his acquaintances. Chaos gives us a picture of its “lucky Mexican” protagonist writing later “(without telephone, without internet), on Patmos, when the horrors and portents narrated had already become, for the time being, things of the past.”     

Human Matter (I believe that the original El material humano better explains its author’s multiple preoccupations) is more explicitly concerned with the past. It covers, in its detours, almost an entire century, and is far more firmly located on Rey Rosa’s native ground. Both novels, however, share a concern with horrors and portents—we feel, in Rey Rosa’s wish to abandon his project at various points in the novel, that the horrors of Guatemala’s history might be portents of a future—if not there, then elsewhere, in the weak states tyrannised by their own dictators and by the self-appointed Masters of the Universe.  

Rey Rosa’s style is as diverse—we might say as digressive—as the range of the author’s interests, ranging from the documentary mode of forensic reports to an almost journalist record of the author’s meetings with officials, with interludes of startling familial or sensual intimacy. The novel is at times baffling, infuriating; at others, it leads the reader into the maze of its confidences with great assurance. The author has often spoken of his preference for short forms; in this brief novel, he covers the much larger canvas of many of his older contemporaries, such as Vargas Llosa. In another way, he resembles Cortázar who, also dedicated to the short form, produced brilliant novels with a powerful political undertow. It is to the translator Eduardo Aparicio’s credit that he captures the various registers in which Rey Rosa operates.

At the end of Human Matter, we find the narrator and Pia holidaying together on the Pacific Coast. She asks him, as she watches him assemble his notebooks, if he’s writing a story for children; he says he doesn’t know whom it’s for, perhaps merely for himself, and he doesn’t know where it will end. But in the work we have just read in Aparicio’s precise, spare translation—in whatever form, fragmentary chronicle, jottings, or fully evolved novel—the lost and scattered stories he has gathered have reached his readers.