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On returning from Chiapas: a revery in many voices.

1. The One Pearl

In this country everyone dreams. Now the time has come to awaken . . .

- Subcomandante Marcos, "Two Winds: A Storm and a Prophecy" (VF 33)

Iranian Gnosticism offers an exemplary text called The Hymn of the Pearl. It proposes the mystical itinerary of a king's son who, like Christ, makes his way down into the world in order to recover the One Pearl from the depths of the sea. The sea is in fact our world submerged in a drunken sleep, and the One Pearl represents the soul. It is guarded by a serpent - not the serpent that offered gnosis to Adam and Eve, but chaos: that venomous principle.

The searcher's itinerary takes him first to Babel - there where the muddling of tongues confounds the cause of brotherhood - and then to Egypt, the land of black earth and alchemy. There he is made to drink the wine of sleeping and forgetting. He comes to resemble his captors; without a quest he is a slave. But then a letter from "home" arrives - a summons to awakening. It is a call to being, the Gnostical calling forth of the sleeper's innate capacity for becoming. Not surprisingly, the words of the letter mirror the words that are written on the seeker's heart. They rouse him from his slumber and illumine his path. Empowered, he charms the serpent and claims what is his.

To continue a moment longer with Gnostical metaphors, recall how Kafka's Barnabas - the only messenger sent to K - is himself the message. The message, the wakening call, is love, love in what may be its most selfless form: brotherhood. If what is written on the pearl seeker's heart is his own innate capacity for moral being and his only chance for transcendence, Barnabas is K's only chance for being truly human. This is why The Castle is such a tragic book. K is blind, incapable of reading into his own heart, incapable of seeing that Barnabas is his brother.

Kafka's vision of a corrupt, frenzied, and unjust world was precipitated and informed by his own father's extensive holdings and brutal treatment of those in his service. (He once threatened to bone his son like a fish.) In fact, the Kafka microcosm very neatly mirrors industrialized Czechoslovakia. A self-congratulatory, self-perpetrating patriarchy, racist, classist, and burdened with acute social, economic, and political contradictions, Kafka's Czechoslovakia is emblematic of a modern and universal predicament.

Which brings us to Mexico. Exemplary castle of the Third World in crisis, it is here, at the end of this most tragic of centuries, that a voice resonates like a call to being: "When the storm subsides, when the fire and rain leave the earth in peace once again, the world will no longer be the world but something better" (Subcomandante Marcos, VF 33). And it is here that a grass roots revolution is taking place of international significance: "The uprising coincided with the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The Zapatista army called NAFTA a 'death sentence for Indians,' a gift for the rich that will deepen the divide between narrowly concentrated wealth and mass misery, destroying what remains of their indigenous society" (Noam Chomsky, FW 176). "We were going to enter into NAFTA like Christ with all his beggars and sit happily at the banquet; or was the United States contemplating the inclusion of the indigenous people into the trade agreements? There are more than 6.4 million Indians in our country" (Elena Poniatowska, FW 104).

Fostered in the name of national unity and national pride, and founded on tribal prejudice and the law of exclusion, NAFTA brings nothing so much to mind as Kafka's take on Babel, the Great Wall of China, that dogma full of holes. The extreme alienation of the Mexican people, half of whom live below subsistence level, is shared by the dispossessed all over the planet - dispossessed of historical context, of cultural integrity, of a past, a future, of dignity, of landscape: "[They] saw forests being cut down to become supports for the wall, saw mountains being hewn into stones for the wall" (Kafka, CS 237). However, the struggle goes back to the time of the conquest: "The machine that Christopher Columbus hammered into shape . . . was a kind of . . . medieval vacuum cleaner. The flow of nature . . . was interrupted by the suction of an iron mouth, taken thence through a transatlantic tube to be deposited and redistributed in Spain" (Antonio Benitez-Rojo, RI 6).

Listen to the testimony of one of the New World's rare travelers who had the courage to remain wide awake:

The pearl fishers dive into the sea at a depth of five fathoms, and do this from sunrise to sunset, and remain for many minutes without breathing, tearing the oysters out of their rocky beds where the pearls are formed. They come to the surface with a netted bag of these oysters where a Spanish torturer is waiting in a canoe or skiff, and if the pearl diver shows signs of wanting to rest, he is showered with blows, his hair is pulled and he is thrown back into the water, obliged to continue. . . . At night the pearl divers are chained so they cannot escape. - Bartolome de Las Casas (DI 99-100)

. . . they go towards a sea without its dawns those who hide their hunched backs those who hide burns under shawls those who weep when they hear music those who weep when drinking water

- Ambar Past (SS 2)

2. These Things Happen

I don't know in the mountains these things happen

- Monica Mansour (MM 33)

Beyond a certain point there is no return. This point has to be reached.

- Kafka (BON 87)

I have recently, with three friends (Anne Waldman Andrew Schelling, and Jonathan Cohen), returned from San Cristobal de las Casas, there where Bartolome de Las Casas was, briefly, bishop. The present bishop, Samuel Ruiz Garcia, has a profound and engaged respect for the people of his diocese, the dispossessed Maya of Chiapas: "We have to be on the side of those who are suffering the most," he told an interviewer. "We found ourselves needing to build an authentic church" (FW 72). Just like those who have taken up arms in order to live, Bishop Ruiz is a "professional of hope." In a political context in which people are reduced to slaves and land to raw materials for industrial exploitation, in which laws are determined by markets and not by the demands of justice, and markets by profits and not by the essential needs of the people, the idea of brotherhood is a subversive idea. As does Barnabas in the land of the Castle, Bishop Ruiz threatens the oppressive system in place, an economic system of such violence that, as Subcomandante Marcos describes it, "one and a half million people have no medical services at their disposal . . . 54 percent of the Chiapan population suffers from malnutrition . . . . Education? The worst in the country . . . of every one hundred children, seventy-two do not finish first grade" (VF 21). Says Ruiz: "It should be fully understood that the Kingdom of God is not constructed in eternity, although it ends there, but that it is built here, starting with the poor, that is what Jesus preached" (FW 72).

The paradox at the heart of Christianity is palpable in Chiapas where the Catholic Church - historically the prime oppressor - is represented by a bishop whose teachings include the Mayan Book of Creation - Pain! That's all you've done for us. Our mouths are sooty, our faces are sooty. By setting us on fire all the time you burn us.

- the cooking pots speak in the Popol Vuh

- and a bishop who knows the fight for human dignity is not only spiritual and existential, but economic and political. In Ruiz's hands the church has become (and for this he is risking his life) an animating and a liberating force. "I care little for theology," says Ruiz; "what's important is liberation" (FW 72), words that bring to mind the great campesino revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, who proposed that tyranny is overthrown not on the battlefield alone but by "hurling ideas of redemption."

Everything is red, I tremble. The phantoms of fright, of the great fear, boil in my mouth.

- David Huerta, from "Incurable" (LW 137)

In 1992, what remained of the communal lands from the land reforms of the 1930s under Cardenas were converted into salable properties to facilitate Mexico's entry into NAFTA. Many farmers were forced to sell the land that sustained them.

Here you are dispossessed and belong to the nothing of nobody

- Kyra Galvan, from "City Woman" (MM 65)

The Maya have pushed deeper into the forests in order to plant their crops of corn, beans, and coffee. On the road to San Cristobal we saw corn growing along the steep flanks of the mountain among rocks. Some trees left standing are trimmed of branches taken for firewood. The eroded soil reddens the roads to San Andres Larrainzar, to Zinecantan, San Juan Chamula, Chenalho. This claiming of forest is born of necessity; the Men and Women of Corn - the Tzeltales, Tzotziles, Ch'oles, Tojolabales, Zoques, Mames, Zapotecos, and Lacandons - are starving, their children so weakened they die of whooping cough and measles. The poet Ambar Past,(*) who publishes La Jicara - one of the world's loveliest literary journals - in San Cristobal, told us: "The winter I arrived here, all the children of the nearby village of Magdalenas died. All the children died."

The dead come to us when we're dreaming (Past, SS 21)

1984: Mexico City

The Resurrection of the Living

The Mexicans make a custom of eating death, a sugar or chocolate skeleton dripping with colored caramel. In addition to eating it, they sing it, dance it, drink it, and sleep it. Sometimes, to mock power and money, the people dress death in a monocle and frock coat, epaulettes and medals, but they prefer it stripped naked, racy, a bit drunk, their companion on festive outings.

Day of the Living, this Day of the Dead should be called, although on reflection it's all the same, because whatever comes goes and whatever goes comes, and in the last analysis the beginning of what begins is always the end of what ends.

"My grandfather is so tiny because he was born after me," says a child who knows what he is talking about.

- Eduardo Galeano (CW 275)

In Mexico, poetry and revolution join hands, and Bishop Ruiz is only one messenger in a land that crackles with signification. Says Elsa Cross, a poet who is also a philosopher of religion: "Poetry is the foundation of the self through the world . . . a constant perception, an inner sound, a way of loving life" (MM 139). Writes David Huerta: "Now, writing is a form of the body" (from "Incurable," LW 137).

3. Let's Suppose

Let's suppose a zone of the world falls together from Atlantic to Pacific, from Portugal to Japan; from the Mediterranean to the North Sea to the eastern Arctic. Let's suppose strange myths lift from the ancient caves of Altamira and the ruins of Turkistan, something like Viking ships and fresh legends of Tartars and samurai. Let's suppose the Yankee government doesn't please them and they decide to destabilize it.

- Elena Milan, "Hallucination I" (MM 87)

In the early evenings of winter, the city of San Cristobal mists over; we were there late summer and each afternoon watched the rain clouds gather, the weather forming. The streets, many paved with stone, some of earth, are deep; we easily imagined those streets filled with rushing water during the season of rain. And we imagined the streets - streets in which Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Ch'ol, Tojolabal, Zoque, and Lacandon are spoken - filled with Comandante Ana Maria's freedom-fighters come down from the mountains to declare war: "Today we say Basta ya!"

"To our surprise, we found out there were Indian women among the leaders of the EZLN in the Lacandon jungle. Women who led battalions and gave orders in a clear, unflinching voice, women called Ramona, Petra, Ana Maria, Jesusa, Chabela, Amalia. Women who did not know how to read and write and who did not Speak Spanish. . . . All of them looked like Rigoberta Menchu, except for the fact that they did not wear beautifully embroidered blouses and sashes, nor did they knit ribbons into their thick black braids, but carried two bandoliers of cartridges over their shoulders and a gun strapped onto their hips. These women were hidden away in the muddy trenches in a mountain pass, or behind a red bandanna. Anonymous women were leading an army of two thousand Zapatistas"(Elena Poniatowska, FW 104-5). The resurgent capacity of the collective memory of the Maya was now tested and proven: despite five hundred years of systematic violence, it served as a force for liberation and a source of self-determinism. Writes Elaine Katzenburger: "Public sympathy for the Zapatistas was immediate and overwhelming. Demonstrators filled plazas throughout the country - and in many foreign cities as well - holding banners that read, 'We are all Chiapanecos.' It soon became apparent that the government would be forced to acquiesce to the growing international demand for a cease-fire. A sense of shared triumph began to spread. On the day that the official cease-fire was declared, there was a large demonstration in Mexico City. Over 100,000 people marched together shouting 'First World, HA HA HA!'" (FW ii). It was as though K had dared storm the Castle and rudely rouse Herr Klamm from his slumber. "We do not receive any help from foreign governments, persons or organizations. We have nothing to do with narco-trafficking or national or international terrorism. We are tired of years of abuse, lies and death. We have the right to fight for our lives and dignity. We have at all times obeyed international laws in war respecting the civil population" (Subcomandante Marcos, in "A Message to North America," VF 17).

Marcos does not see himself as the leader of the Maya, but in their service, and in the service of a great idea: the idea of dignity. In other words, Marcos is not interested in ideology in the same way Ruiz is not interested in theology. In this unique revolution, ideology and theology have been usurped by a passion for liberty. Which makes for the most poetical of revolutions - one that Andre Breton would surely have applauded for its "convulsive beauty." In his justly famous "Two Winds: A Storm and a Prophecy" (August 1992, published in La Jornada 27 January 1994), Marcos manages not only to give a concise map of the crushing exploitation of Chiapas, but to offer a vision of renewal. More than a response to tyranny, more than a list of grievances, more than a demand that essential needs be met, and swiftly, "Two Winds" is a summons, a message of urgency rising from a dying world, awakening call: "This wind will blow from the mountains born under the trees and conspiring for the new world, so new that it is scarcely an intuition in the collective heart it animates" (VF 25).

The world tells me what has to be. There is a living flame. I shall have to say what I must say - or be silent.

- David Huerta, from "Incurable" (LW 139)

Repeated to the end of centuries it vibrates in the ear of stone . . .

- Elsa Cross, from "Canto Malabar" (MM 147)

Before ending, I wish to return, briefly, to Kafka, whose fictions illumine an inevitability: hatred or indifference of the Other (and indifference is just one of hatred's many faces) leads to a sickness of the heart. Among the many examples Kafka offers is the figure of Pallas in the fable "A Fratricide." From his balcony, Pallas silently observes a murder; he does nothing to stop it, although a cry from him would suffice. Once the corpse lies bleeding in the street, Pallas is filled with self-loathing and "chokes on the poison in his body" (CS 402). Else the world be the black mirror of Kafka's darkest premonitions, let us look to Mexico, and let us listen:

A wind rises up and everything is resolved. He rises up and walks to meet with others. Something tells him that his desire is the desire of many and he goes to find them. - Subcomandante Marcos, from "Two Winds" (VF 33)

What, then? My feet call to me with a deep tenderness, a pair of neutral feet, terrestrial; feet of a human being, pieces of single and doubled flesh, feet of deep and hopeful walks.

- David Huerta, from "November Rain" (LW 137)

* Ambar Past is currently translating contemporary Mayan poetry into Spanish and English. This work will be the focus of a future essay.


BON: Franz Kafka. Blue Octavo Notebooks. Trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins. Cambridge: Exact Change, 1991.

CS: Franz Kafka. The Complete Short Stories. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Schocken, 1971.

CW: Eduardo Galeano. Century of the Wind: Memory of Fire III. Trans. Cedric Belfrage. New York: Pantheon, 1988.

DI: Bartolome de Las Casas. The Devastation of the Indies. Trans. Herma Briffault. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1992.

FW: Elaine Katzenburger, ed. First World, HA HA HA! San Francisco: City Lights, 1995.

LW: Juvenal Acosta, ed. Light from a Nearby Window: Contemporary Mexican Poetry. Trans. LaVonne Poteet and Nancy Joyce Peters. San Francisco: City Lights, 1993.

MM: Forrest Gander, ed. Mouth to Mouth: Poems by Twelve Contemporary Mexican Women. Trans. Zoe Anglesey, W. S. Merwin, Forrest Gander, Jenny Goodman, and Ofelia Ferran. Minneapolis: Milkweed, 1993.

PV: Popol Vuh. Trans. Dennis Tedlock. New York: Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 1985.

RI: Antonio Benitez-Rojo. The Repeating Island. Trans. James Maraniss. Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1992.

SS: Ambar Past. The Sea on Its Side. Trans. Jack Hirschman. Sausalito: Post-Apollo, 1994.

VF: Ben Clarke and Clifton Ross, eds. Voice of Fire: Communiques and Interviews from the Zapatista National Liberation Army. Trans. Clifton Ross. Berkeley: New Earth, 1994.
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Title Annotation:The Future of Fiction: A Forum
Author:Ducornet, Rikki
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Mar 22, 1996
Previous Article:A conversation with Fernando del Paso.
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