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A false mist

A false mist

Un falso vaho

Giovanna Rivero

They hit him. First on the nose. Already on the floor, in the stomach, in the balls, in the spine. When they leave, he fumbles for the glasses. He puts them on, and I feel a strange relief. As if with the glasses on the “thrashing” hurt less.

For years I tried to get that painful memory out of the caverns of memory. So I wrote a novel –98 segundos sin sombra– in which I try to be loyal to an innocent and desperate voice. The exorcism, however, is not over, from time to time I am struck by memories of those years when drug trafficking performed one of its most sinister acts of black magic: as in misunderstood fairy tales, my people had been transformed into another thing. While it was true that the phrase “small town, big hell” had always been true –a slightest rumor in that town ignited unstoppable suspicions– with the pichicata, as cocaine is called in Bolivia, a greasy layer of strangeness dirtied human relationships. Nothing to do, of course, with Freudian strangeness, which emerges from the notion that the other has always been a stranger. This strangeness originated in the alienation of the spirit.

It is precisely that disturbing aftertaste that prevails when I think of the eighties decade of my people, the old hangover of the alienation of the spirit. Furthermore, if I were to make a very brief Georges Perec-style list of memories of how cocaine altered the consciousness of an entire people, I would have three, although the small traumas are countless:

  1. I remember, in effect, when a gang of five men hit the history teacher at the school gates.
  2. I remember when the birthday party souvenirs were bicycles or gold key rings.
  3. I remember when people started talking about ‘rehabilitation farms’. It was hard for me not to think of chickens.

(My younger brother is not on this list because I reserve love for him and not just trauma. He also looked for cocaine. The cliffs of bipolarity had devastated him and there were times when just the consumption of that powder gave him peace. A tiny and very expensive peace, a peace supported by chopsticks. In any case, I appreciate those moments when the voices, the indescribable unease, the non-transferable loneliness gave him a truce. And if I mention it now it is because I try – perhaps without success– thinking about these events, these ghosts –my brother, my history teacher, the great misunderstanding– without a moralistic desire. And if someone looks for cocaine it is because cocaine gives them something that probably seems far away, perhaps impossible, by other paths. I think of that equation in an attempt to draw one of the reasons why educational campaigns, declared wars, and institutional efforts seem to make a little dent in that tentacular monster that is drug traffic).


The history teacher

The teacher walks towards the school infirmary leaning on the principal’s shoulder. They, the nuns are who have come to the gate to stop the five thrashing guys. They call us to the patio, the principal takes the megaphone, and they say us to pray for justice, that what we have seen from the classroom windows is its counterpart, the saddest ignominy. She uses that word and does not care if we understand it with intelligence, surely she trusts that we decipher it with the guts. Ignominy. Someone says in a whisper that they hope at least let us leave earlier. Unlike other times, nobody gets very excited about the idea. We feel that they have beaten us all, that they have humiliated us all. Or how else does one process -with the mind or the guts- that five bullies come to the gate of a girls’ school to give such a beating to the history teacher?

We look for reasons, but there are none. Was it that morning that the professor compared the “Opium War” to the “War of the Pichicata”? Was it that one of us – we know who – brought the story of the school lesson to her father’s ears as if she were an affront? What things could the history teacher teach us that his warning and his admonition would not touch upon the facts of our immediate contemporaneity?

One morning the history teacher explained to us that the “Opium War” had been a strategy for England to regain its former economic power after China made tea its flagship product. Since the second half of the 18th century, the world demand for tea had enriched China. At the beginning of the 19th century, this heyday was instituted as a great danger to other empires. England needed to offer a product that would clean up the balance between what it imported and exported. Smuggling opium from India to China was the solution. When China created strict laws to regulate and punish the widespread opium trade that had put its workers to sleep, England re-angled its business using North American merchants who brought the produce from India, so that England looked flawless. Of course, when England itself had to go through the darkest corridors of its endemic Industrial Revolution, that opium turned against it. The breakdown of social ties that the division of labor and its eight hours in the factory had generated, in turn, unleashed unprecedented rates of crime, suicide and prostitution. Opium temporarily made this massive solitude acceptable, but it took with it the spirit of the times, the breath of generations that, hopefully, had seen the birth of a magnificent revolution of metal, gear and steam. The steam remained.

That same morning, the history teacher said that the pichicata was a way to become colonies of an economic model similar to the one that England had implemented. Modernity? He wondered, taking off his glasses to clean them with his breath. That word has always been problematic. During the Industrial Revolution, opium had done its thing; the “laudanum” – so musical in its sound – was the way to feel alive, even though it was getting closer and closer to an ordinary death, and they were modern. Much. In our town, all the pichicateros were servile merchants – poor puppets levitating without a floor thanks to hollow money. It was they who enriched a greater monster. Nothing to envy the servants of feudalism. And we, did we think we were modern? Seriously? Sometimes I think I remember that we turned red, but it could also be adolescence, that constant state of modesty.

Then, of course, came the beating.


The farms

Sometimes someone got lost for a while. It was not necessary to ask. He was on a “farm”. This is how the rehabilitation centers were called, which surely experimented with all kinds of methods to carry out an endeavor as huge as convincing an addicted person to be lucid, awake, aware of the world – even if the world was shit – it was better. I had a boyfriend who spent time there. He sometimes joked: “A season on a farm.” It was a Paraguayan farm that used religious conversion as its most effective tool. God was a substitute for cocaine. In China, the state had tried to replace opium, to install itself with its phallic rotundity in the hearts of its subjects, and its failure consisted precisely in that: the plane of the real offered nothing that wove a thread between the unbearable loneliness of a soul surrounded by economism and the thirst for a sacred transcendence in a more here, of a sense. The state and its system of prohibitions have never had either the eroticism or the narcosis that narcotics provide. The farms knew it and that is why they looked for other passions that could first cut and then replace the powerful emotional bond with cocaine. How to stop loving it? How to transfer that needy love to another substance, matter, potency, idea, and reality? How to feel overwhelmingly loved by another absolute entity?



No, I never received a gold keychain or late-model bike from any party. Perhaps they were the kind of legends that drug trafficking circulates as part of their aura, perhaps they did not invite me, perhaps I invented the memory. A fake eighties fog. What is true is that the people lived on the cusp of their excesses. While for people who subsisted on a minimum wage, the money was worth nothing – I remember Dad bringing his salary home in two black bags as if he had committed murder – for those who trafficked pichicata, the money was not worth anything either, but for other reasons. Due to its lack of meaning, it was necessary to “empty” it into souvenirs that would occupy with its excess the circumstance of anomie in which the people existed. What I am trying to tie to this memory token is the hyperinflation that hit Bolivia between 1982 and 1985. That was the perfect breeding ground for drug trafficking to establish itself as an escape route from that suffocating precariousness. Although it is also believed that the inflamed drug money further destabilized the already critical economic stretch of the mid-decade. This incredible and labyrinthine aporia divided the people between those who tried to force the matter to take the indecent form of their desires and those who survived embracing an opaque reality, but true even in its opacity. Living authentically in the eighties was equivalent to breathing on the margins, always on the margins. And maybe every now and then take a beating.


Being for death

To it we are destined, says Heidegger, to death, and our only parenthesis in that fate is to live an authentic life. What I am simplifying so grossly might seem like a self-help aphorism. However, authenticity – whose semantics has been so worn out – is a terrible, colossal undertaking, even superhuman. It involves living existence as it comes, without slipping through the escape doors, knowing that death is movingly intimate to us. But this existence as it comes requires other anchors, elements of subjection to which our pact with modernity has forced us to renounce. Thus, the sacred – and I’m not talking about religion, please – could constitute that mast that allows us to keep our eyes open. The sacred, unfortunately, is now a simulacrum of transcendence, a system of superstitions, a gesture, or a hallucinatory happening. In Greco-Roman mythology – to which we are in eternal debt -, one of the cruelest punishments that a god or goddess could impose on an enemy was to snatch his consciousness or to overlap it in the form of an animal, unable to translate in language. In some depictions of the goddess Hera, for example, we see her carrying a poppy (later she will replace it with a pomegranate). With this flower, Hera snatches the consciousness of the world from her rivals. What sadness for the drugged not to be able to throw themselves into existence with the totality of their being! Hera knows this, as the bad and impatient fairies of tales have always known, who use all their esoteric abilities to put princesses or entire villages to sleep if need be. A kingdom sunk in unconsciousness for a hundred years loses its generations, loses its history, loses its time, loses the natural cycles of death.

I retrace my steps, that is, my paragraphs, and I realize that I have not been able to evade that semi-moralistic tone that scares me so much. It probably is. Perhaps these types of issues always corner us in a corner of the ring. So from this harrowing ring, I try, uselessly, I know, to give an uppercut to the initial question: Why do prohibitionist systems fail in their fight against drug trafficking? My answer: because cocaine and other synthetic drugs, in their ominous transignification, have filled the innate thirst for those who exist, those who exist, the thirst for the sacred. That sacred that is longed for and that is no longer there – because we only have things left, the accumulations of things in their different species – is, in my opinion, the notion that the hard work of living is worth the effort. The sacred is simple: the acceptance that life has not promised us anything extraordinary, neither ecstasy nor abysmal narcosis. Life just is. The narratives of capital promise us exactly the opposite. How painful. What a fucking pain. The world materialized to the extreme becomes an accomplice of this imposture. Who, then, would want to live lucidly in an atrocious world? And for what?


*Photo by Morgan Basham

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