Comments on Stoll versus Menchú

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Dec 22 06:30:12 PST 1998

Comments on Stoll versus Menchú

By John Beverley

In one of the most powerful sections of I, Rigoberta Menchú Menchú narrates the torture and execution of her brother by elements of the Guatemalan army in the town plaza of Chajul. Here is part of her description of the event:

"After he'd finished talking the officer ordered the squad to take away those who'd been 'punished', naked and swollen as they were. They dragged them along, they could no longer walk. Dragged them to this place, where they lined them up all together within sight of everyone. The officer called to the worst of the criminals--the Kaibiles, who wear different clothes from other soldiers. They're the ones with the most training, the most power. Well, he called the Kaibiles and they poured petrol over each of the tortured. The captain said, 'This isn't the last of their punishments, there's another one yet. This is what we've done with all the subversives we catch, because they have to die by violence. And if this doesn't teach you a lesson, this is what'll happen to you too. The problem is that the Indians let themselves be led by the communists. Since no-one's told the Indians anything, they go along with the communists.' He was trying to convince the people but at the same time he was insulting them by what he said. Anyway, they [the soldiers] lined up the tortured and poured petrol on them; and then the soldiers set fire to each one of them. Many of them begged for mercy. Some of them screamed, many of them leapt but uttered no sound--of course, that was because their breathing was cut off. But--and to me this was incredible--many of the people had weapons with them, the ones who'd been on their way to work had machetes, others had nothing in their hands, but when they saw the army setting fire to the victims, everyone wanted to strike back, to risk their lives doing it, despite all the soldier's arms.... Faced with its own cowardice, the army itself realized that the whole people were prepared to fight. You could see that even the children were enraged, but they didn't know how to express their rage."

(I, Rigoberta Menchú, trans. Ann Wright [London: Verso, 19841, 178-179).

David Stoll has made the claim in his article "The Construction of I, Rigoberta Menchú (Brick 57 [1997], 38) that "Her [Rigoberta Menchú's] story could rhetorically erase the differences between a revolutionary leadership in exile and peasants struggling to keep families alive in shattered villages.... A young woman's claim to have experienced what she had not experienced became the revolutionary movement's claim to speak for Indians." What would it mean to say this in relation to the passage quoted above?

In an unpublished paper, "I, Rigoberta Menchú and Human Rights Reporting in Guatemala," presented almost ten years ago at a conference on "Political Correctness" and Cultural Studies at the University of California Berkeley on October 20, 1990, Stoll claimed, on the basis of his own interviews in the area Menchú comes from (where he spent several years doing field work), that the torture and massacre of Menchú's brother by the army happened in a different way, that Menchú could not have been an eyewitness to it, and that therefore her description was, in his words, "a literary invention." (Without noting the incident of the brother in particular, Stoll also questioned the reliability of Menchú's account in "'The Land No Longer Gives': Land Reform in Nebaj, Guatemala," Cultural Survival Quarterly 14, 4 [1990]: 4-9.)

Menchú denied this charge at the time, and Stoll has not repeated it in the recent articles he has published on I, Rigoberta Menchú that I am aware of. Nor does he contest the fact itself of the torture and murder of the brother by a unit of the Guatemalan army involved in the genocidal counter-insurgency war against indian communities like Chajul. But he has retained the implication that Menchú is not a reliable narrator, and that her transformation into something like a secular saint of the struggles of Guatemalan indigenous peoples is not only unwarranted, but, by legitimizing the revolutionary movement, actually may have served to prolong the war.

In my view, the debate between Menchú and Stoll is not so much about What really happened? as Who has the authority to narrate? It is not incidental that in his Berkeley talk Stoll related his doubts about the representativity of I, Rigoberta Menchú to an uneasiness with what he called a "postmodernist anthropology":

"What I want to say," he noted in that talk, "is that if our frame is the text, the narrative, or the voice instead of the society, culture, or political economy, it is easy to find someone to say what we want to hear." But his own basis for questioning Menchú's account of the massacre of her brother and other details of her testimonio are the interviews he conducted with people from the region where the massacre occurred many years afterwards. That is, the only thing he can put in the place of what he considers Menchú's inadequately representative testimony are...other testimonies: other texts, narratives, voices, in which (it will come as no surprise) he can also find things that he might want to hear.

We know something about the nature of this problem from Wittgenstein and modern philosophy. There is not, outside of human discourse itself, a level of facticity that can guarantee the truth of this or that representation, given that "society, culture, and political economy" are not ontological essences prior to representation, but rather themselves the consequence of struggles about and over representation. That is the deeper meaning of Walter Benjamin's aphorism (written in the face of the onrushing tide of fascism in the 1930s) that "Even the dead are not safe": even the memory of the past is conjunctural, relative, perishable.

It would be yet another version of the "native informant" of classical anthropology to grant testimonial narrators like Rigoberta Menchú only the possibility of being witnesses, but not the power to create their own narrative authority and negotiate its conditions of truth and representativity. This amounts to saying that the subaltern can of course speak, but only through us, through our institutionally sanctioned authority and pretended objectivity as intellectuals, which gives us the power to decide what counts as relevant and true in the narrator's "raw material." But it is precisely that institutionally sanctioned authority and objectivity that, in a less benevolent form, but still claiming to speak from the place of truth, indigenous peoples must confront every day in the form of genocide, economic exploitation, development schemes, obligatory acculturation, police and military repression, destruction of habitat, forced sterilization, and the like.

Stoll misreads I, Rigoberta Menchú if he thinks that it is a picture of a mythic Mayan Gemeinschaft posed against the corruptions of ladino and gringo modernity. Nothing is more "postmodern," nothing more traversed by the economic and cultural forces of transnational capitalism than the social, economic, and cultural contingencies Menchú's testimonio describes. Even the communal mountain aldea or village that she evokes so compellingly turns out to be a quite recent settlement, founded by her father, Vicente, on unoccupied lands in the mountains in the wake of its inhabitants' displacement from previous places of residence, much as squatters from the countryside have created the great slums around Latin American cities, or returned refugees in Central America have tried to reconstruct their former communities.

I do not mean by this to diminish the force of Menchú's insistent appeal to the authority of Mayan tradition, but want simply to indicate that it is an appeal that is being activated and, at the same time, continuously revised in the present, that it is a response to the conditions of oppression and semi-proletarianization subjects like Menchú and her family are experiencing in the context of the same processes of globalization that affect our own lives. In some ways, US Latino postmodernist performance artists like Gloria Anzaldua or Guillermo G6mez Pena might be more reliable guides to Menchú's world than anthropologists like David Stoll or Elisabeth Burgos, who, whatever their differences about the truth of Menchú's narrative, assume they are authorized or authorize themselves to represent that truth for us.

I get the sense sometimes that Stoll wants there to be more to the case against Menchú than he has been able to find. We will have to wait for his forthcoming book from Westview Pres for his full indictment, but what has he shown us so far? That Menchú's father Vicente was not quite the revolutionary saint that she makes him out to be, that he worked at one time with the Peace Corps and had fights with his neighbors over land, that he might not have been a founder of the CUC (nevertheless, he was enough of an activist to have been killed in the sit-in at the Spanish embassy, and what young daughter would not over-idealize and make into a martyr a father who had been killed in that way?). That Menchú went to a Catholic boarding school run by nuns, and so is not quite the naive poor peasant child she makes herself out to be (but Menchú herself highlights in her testimonio her struggle with her father to agree to let her get an education and the importance of her training as a Catholic catechist of the word for her later work as an organizer). That she is not representative of all indian positions in Guatemala (but Nelson Mandela could not stand for all black and colored people in South Africa--for example, many Zulus--yet to insist on this would have been to give credence to Buthelezi and the Inkatha). That she doesn't tell us in so many words that she was a member of the EGP (but the whole book is a strong argument for why one might have concluded that armed struggle was justified). That there are errors and inconsistencies in her account (but none of us, including Stoll, could produce an account of a similar period in our own lives that would be free of inconsistencies and errors or that would not be contradicted in some ways by the memory of others).

Perhaps Stoll's strongest suggestion--but it is no more than that (he takes it from a casual remark Elisabeth Burgos made to him in his interview with her in Madrid)--is that Menchú grafted onto her own account experiences that happened to other indian families she knew about. But even if true, this seems rather small potatoes (in the sense that Stoll isn't saying that those things didn't happen, just that they didn't happen to Menchú).

What a book like I, Rigoberta Menchú forces us to confront is not the subaltern as a "represented" victim, but rather as agent of a transformative historical project that aspires to become hegemonic in its own right. Although we can enter into relations of understanding and solidarity with this project, it is not ours in any immediate sense and may in fact imply structurally a contradiction with our own position of relative privilege and authority in the global system. What seems to bother Stoll above all is that Menchú has an agenda. But this leads me to ask, what exactly is Stoll's own agenda? Why has he kept at this for almost ten years now?

It is not clear whether in questioning the validity of Menchú's account Stoll's own position is that of a dispassionate, "objective" observer, or of someone opposed on both moral and political grounds to the strategy of armed struggle, and therefore predisposed to downplay Menchú because of her connection to Catholic base communities that supported the guerrillas. Stoll believes that the attempt of the Marxist left to wage an armed struggle against the Guatemalan state left the majority of the highland indian population caught, in their own image, "between two fires," driven to support the guerrillas mainly by the ferocity of the army's counter-insurgency measures rather than by a sense of connection between its interests and those of the guerrillas--this is the theme of his book Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993). By contrast, the narrative logic of I, Rigoberta Menchú suggests that the armed struggle in Guatemala grew necessarily out of the conditions of repression the indian communities faced in their attempts to hold the line against land seizures, exploitation and repression by the army and ladino landowners. For Stoll to sustain his hypothesis, therefore, he has to disqualify to some degree Menchú's testimonio.

I have often wondered, too, what was behind Stoll's interest in the spread of Protestant fundamentalism in Guatemala and other countries in Latin America. Is this just a topic he came across and whose importance he recognized while he was doing field work in Guatemala as a graduate student? Or does it come out of something in his own background? Is he suggesting that fundamentalism was a kind of "third way" between the violence of the army and the oligarchy on the one side and the violence of the Marxist guerrillas--supported by the Catholic Church--on the other? These are questions, not charges. Nor I am suggesting that Protestant fundamentalism is, in itself, a good or bad thing (I come from a Protestant background myself). But if it is important to know that Menchú went to Catholic boarding school or was a member of the EGP, it's also important to know what Stoll's personal and political background and sympathies are. As this discussion proceeds, I would like David Stoll to be more forthcoming about what is at stake for him in it.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: John Beverley is a professor of Latin American literature and cultural studies at the University of Pittsburgh, a member of that institution's Center for Latin American Studies, and a co-founder of the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group. Some of his publications relevant to this issue are (with Marc Zimmerman) Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions (1990), Against Literature (1993), "The Real Thing," in Georg Gugelberger ed. The Real Thing. Testimonial Discourse and Latin America (1996), and two collections he co-edited: La voz del otro: Testimonio, subalternidad v verdad narrativa (1993), and The Postmodernism Debate in Latin America (1995).

Louis Proyect


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