Book Reviews · 09/09/2019

Human Matter by Rodrigo Rey Rosa

Translated by Eduardo Aparicio

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University of Texas Press, 2019

We can start with the facts. In 2005, a vast archive of records was discovered in a warehouse in downtown Guatemala City. The archive amounted to almost eighty million pages detailing the work of National Police during the Guatemalan Civil War — crimes against humanity including homicides, disappearances, and torture.

Another fact: author Rodrigo Rey Rosa did visit the National Police Archive to research a novel. That novel became Human Matter, a book that is part documentary, part diary, and, as the epigraph of the novel makes clear, is a work of fiction “though it may not seem to be, though it may not want to seem to be.”

Certainly, Human Matter does seem to want to be something other than a novel. Sectioned into nine parts, the book ostensibly appears to be a collection of notebooks and sketchbooks filled with “simple impressions and observations” both of a writer’s time in the archive as well as his life outside of it — his relationships, his family, his writing career.

In the introduction, we learn the writer has asked for special permission to be at the National Police Archive with the stated intent of finding out “about cases of intellectuals and artists who were the subject of police investigation — or who had collaborated with the police as informers or accusers — in the twentieth century.” He is granted permission and is authorized to visit the archive, specifically the records concerning the “Identification Bureau,” though he is warned “for [his] own safety” not to consult any documents after 1970. On his first day, an archivist gives him a lead: “At the foot of the records originating from different police bodies and received at the Bureau,” she says, “there is a name that will appear constantly: Benedicto Tun.”

It’s this fictional historical character that comprises one of the several main threads of this fragmented novel. Benedicto Tun, we come to know early on, is the founder of the Identification Bureau. Started in the 1920s, the Bureau maintained a database of individuals arrested across the country. In a startling early section, we see the results of Benedicto Tun’s careful work cataloging Guatemala’s criminals via a simple list of names, dates of birth, occupations, and reasons for arrest. At first, the 13-page list of crimes is expected: larcenies, kidnappings, domestic abuse. And mixed in are crimes against the government: “for criticizing the Supreme Government of the Revolution,” “for being a communist,” “for distributing subversive propaganda.” Soon, however, we see much more different types of arrest charges — “for dancing the tango in the brewery ‘El Gaucho;’” “for not wearing an apron while selling bread,” “for committing adultery in her home;” “because she wants to leave prostitution and lead an honest life.” Often, no reason is the reason for the arrest.

[The] list shows the arbitrary and often perverse nature of our own unique justice system,” the writer concludes, “which laid the foundations for the widespread violence that was unleashed on the country[…]and whose aftermath we are still living.

Benedicto Tun, then, becomes a figure that symbolizes the tyranny of the National Police. This is later complicated when the writer meets Benedicto’s son who shares the same name and who thinks his father’s story has not been justly told. For instance, Benedicto Tun was of Quiché (or Kʼicheʼ) origin in a country where the intellectuals once advocated for “‘importing European blood to improve the race.’” Benedicto, Jr. paints a picture of a man struggling against racial discrimination, who worked hard to prove his place in a country that hated him based on race, a man who dedicated his life to law and order, who in the end only received a meager pension and no governmental recognition.

Though Rey Rosa never completely asks the reader to side with Tun, he gives us a sympathetic picture and a man who was once black and white becomes more complex. Rey Rosa does this multiple times throughout Human Matter, including a bombshell near the end as he tries to figure out who exactly is Benedicto Tun, along with who kidnapped his mother years ago and who is leaving him a series of mysterious phone calls since he arrived at the archives. And, of course, there is the problem of what kind of novel the writer will write after all the research is done. Reading, one nearly expects Human Matter to become a high stakes thriller but that doesn’t seem to be what Rey Rosa has in mind.

Heavily incorporating nonfiction, Human Matter might fit under “autofiction.” Indeed, the novel relishes in including the mundane moments of life — arguments with a girlfriend, picking up his daughter, traveling to go to a conference as well as the occasional brag (the writer, like Rey Rosa, was friends with Paul Bowles). What makes Rey Rosa different from other practitioners of this technique is his willingness to interrogate reality. He is less navel-gazing and more outward-looking: Rey Rosa might have been to the Archive in real life, but he’s less interested in himself as a person and more interested in making sense of history.

But perhaps autofiction is the wrong word. Rey Rosa is more of a documentarian using fiction as a tool. The documentarian in him shows in what Spanish reviewers have called an aseptic, cold, almost robotic tone, which translator Eduardo Aparicio has dutifully and smoothly rendered. And while this might be off-putting to some readers, something must be said about the fact that, in the end, this novel is about human right abuses, and Rey Rosa has put himself to the large task of making sense of it. Though he reaches no conclusion, Rey Rosa highlights the contradictions and complexities inherent in histories and the way power is wielded to tell us otherwise.

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Rodrigo Rey Rosa is the author of many acclaimed novels and short-story collections, among them Severina and La orilla africana (The African Shore). He is the recipient of one of Guatemala’s most distinguished literary prizes, the Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature, as well as the prestigious José Donoso Prize.

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Eduardo Aparicio has been translating for twenty-five years and is owner of Aparicio Publishing. He is the translator of Miami Century Fox by Legna Rodríguez Iglesias (Akashic, 2017).

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Eric Nguyen is a writer based in Washington, DC.