A Geological Writing by Claudia Peña Claros
The Dying of the Senses
There are trees in “Destello/ Flare”, the first short story included in Los árboles/ The Trees, a collection authored by Bolivian writer Claudia Peña Claros, a novelist and a poet. These trees, which oversee everything in the countryside, look as if they were suspended in midair. “Do they feel any attachment?” Someone or something asks. An impersonal voice, a point of view firmly anchored in the third personal singular, relates the time, perhaps ancestral, that signaled their evolution: “Many rains have passed by above those trees and lots of winds and more moons and, when the forest was still here, wild animals, the rituals of the wild packs.” Later on, a similar impersonal voice wonders aloud: “With what eyes would trees look down on this man still wrestling down there, in the red mud of the earth.” The questions about the perception of trees, about the capacity of trees to perceive its surroundings and react to them, continue, facilitating the unfolding of a seemingly simple plot: a man has been killed and, very slowly, at a snail pace, death is dawning on him as he finds himself shoeless and in the open, barely covered by the foliage of the trees. He did not expect the three shots that opened his chest, ripping the night apart with their flares. Death is overcoming him little by little, and language, very much like the dying man himself, is struggling in the mud to open the experience up to him and, simultaneously, to others. The fallen man is learning about his own death while we, the readers, overlook and pry, barely containing our breath. Is this really happening? Is death what is behind this fistful of unruly words? As the senses break down and language refuses to convey meaning as if nothing were happening, at times stuck in a knot of its own making, and at times loosening its own grip in never ending digressions, who or what is in charge of registering in such a great detail the distinct phases of passing away? I have never before been this close to the act of dying, except when I read Marguerite Duras, C´est tout, translated by Richard Howard as No More.
The Third Person and the Impersonal
As wide range of authors approach the writing challenges posed by the capitalocene, willingly decentering the human perspective and admitting the points of view of organic and non-organic entities, animals and plants and rocks included, perhaps one of the most vital questions remains: how to best convey the perception or knowledge of non-human beings? A rich literature on the secret lives of trees, stones, jelly-fish or bread has become accessible to contemporary readers, furnishing them with concrete data covering issues from their neural systems to the antics of their perceptions. As most writers know, however, points of view are usually as much a matter of information as of aesthetics or politics. What would be a good pronoun for a rock up until now thought of as inert? Are sea-horses better described in the feminine or the masculine (given the fact that males give birth)? Will birds in a flock respond better to a singular or plural pronoun? If so, would they opt for the we that unifies, often without asking for permission, or a they that interrupts the makings of community? I believe these to be the questions at the very core of Los Árboles. Claudia Peña Claros has not only taken the short story away from the cities and urban centers, where the form has grown steadily throughout the twentieth century, and into the countryside, where a new rural narrative has surged with incredible force as of late; she has also fully accepted the writerly challenge such a massive move conveys. Her characters are peasants and agricultural laborers, precarious cowboys and wives living on the fringes of urban areas who have not been steady features of most contemporary Latin American narrative. In addition, and boldly, Peña Claros has also worked closely with the perspective of other constituents of the countryside: trees, indeed, but also the monte as such, the forces of water unleashed, dogs, and even insects. This is no longer the jungle of the nineteenth century, espousing barbarism and threatening civilization in its wake, but a countryside that is a territory where sovereignty and property are always in dispute, as are processes of production, extraction, and accumulation. These are the territories where a good percentage of the poor live and thrive, resisting—and often failing against—the onslaught of capitalism and a host of neo-liberal policies. Many so-called green revolutions have emerged in these sites, unleashing predatory agricultural practices that violently intrude upon the natural world and its delicate balance as well as different forms of popular insurrection. And, by encompassing the multi-layered materiality of the territory, through her willingness to dig deeper and deeper, uncovering experiences that concern and affect human and non-human beings alike, this becomes a fine example of geological writing. How can a writer better put across the manifold perspectives of a world in constant turmoil?
Claudia Peña Claros, for whom writing revolves around attention, that is to say, paying close attention to what lies before her senses, moves freely in a space Alberto Moreiras has called the impersonal, in turn based on a critical understanding of the third person, which “according to Benveniste, does not have a personal connotation but refers to a notion able to go beyond the dialogical subjectivity and reach singularity, even plural singularity. It is the verbal form whose function is to express the no-person.” The impersonal, which Moreiras also links to critical concepts of person developed, among others, by Simone Weil, “is a landscape beyond the I or the we, and thus a landscape toward the third person, toward that that is innominate, toward that that is anonymous.” To be clear, Moreiras is here working within a politics of separation, clearly dividing life from politics against any political subjectivation and toward a counter-communitarian thinking and practice, central features of his notion of infrapolitics. Yet, this concept, the concept of the impersonal rooted in a third person that evades political subjectivation, may help understand the unique, irreverent work Claudia Peña Claros has undertaken in terms of point of view and, more generally speaking, narrative, as she explores the rural, impoverished worlds, that are central to Los árboles.
If we agree that poetry, as Lyn Hejinian famously argued, is the language with which we investigate language, we would have to accept that “Flare,” the short story that opens Los árboles was written by a poet. Eschewing plot and emphasizing instead the materiality of language, Peña Claros refuses capitalization and, often enough, paragraphs altogether, opting for what appears to be short packs of lines barely put together interrupted, in turn, by brief stanzas. “one / two / three.” A line for each one of these succinct words. Is this the beginning or the continuation of a larger process we interrupt with our reading? Because events included here have not fully gone through the consciousness of the character, but rather are in a radical in-progress stage because the gerund of dying has to reject the very notion of completion, “Flare” remains at once open and disconcerting. Rather than unfolding, the narrative here gets stuck or digresses and, as such, prevents the confirmation of meaning. Narrative strikes here as an anti-narrative device, folding, rather than unfolding, meaning over time.
Like the dying character himself, readers have not been provided with contextual information to clearly position this death on a political or historical continuum. And we follow him, in shared astonishment, as his knees and ankles fail and he trips and falls, bewildered. We investigate his lack of shoes with his same ardent curiosity and feel the warm, sticky clay beneath his hands, with which he tries to stop the gushing of blood, to no avail. Who or what wonders, then, about the trees capacity to perceive the surrounding world? Who or what reflects on the dying man´s naked feet and the fact that only those who have loved him, those who have seen him shoeless one wonderous morning, would be able to identify the corpse? Who or what moves between the past and the present, illuminating the passage of time with flares that, eventually, will cease, closing the sky up? Who or what breaks the narrative once and again, forcing readers to dwell in the processual landscape formed by the man and the monte, both dying at once? I am arguing that the who or what of this anti-narrative short story constitutes the foundation on which Claudia Peña Claros is building an impersonal space that rejects political subjectivation. “Flare” third-person perspective, which any creative writing manual would describe as effortlessly moving between the omniscient and the limited narrator, affords the possibility of singularity, even a plural singularity, by virtue of the millimetric attention that exposes fiction “to its own facticity.” Nothing escapes the attention of the narrative point of view, neither what has happened before nor what would conditionally happen afterward. As the dying man breathes in and breathes out, attempting to give shape to the inconceivable, the grass and the horse, the rope and the latch are already in the process of forgetting him. His hand is slowly becoming not his hand. Not his. Not him. He is turning into a not-himself before our eyes. Claudia Peña Claros knows that only an impersonal perspective, one able to express an experience beyond the politically entrapped notion of person, could do justice to the dying of a man on a monte where the crossing of property lines may bring on a death sentence.
From we to they
Two of the stories of Los árboles are told from the first-person singular point of view; two from the first-person plural point of view; the rest may be adequately described as using the third-person perspective. The I, we, and s/he stories all submit themselves to a radical facticity: the work of the senses brings up in each case the materiality of both the world the story is linked to and the language at play in its investigation. In each case, however, the decision is less a matter of mere functionality and more a question of a form deeply linked to the critical capacity of writing. In “El dios /God” a third-person singular recounts the story of a girl who faces a deadly flooding in the countryside. As the water rises up and young horses are able to escape the deluge, leaving old horses, heavy cows and trees behind covered by the currents, the girl, who has taken refuge on the roof of her house, carries a last piece of bread in her pocket. The silence surrounding the disaster fills the atmosphere as a beast-dog looks down on the remains: some foliage, a couple of dogs, a few inches of a rooftop. Her decision, a decision prompted by a point of view that allows for her singularity (not her individuality), hurls her into the rising water. The pair of dogs, her dogs, beating their tails and barking at her as she gets rid of her red dress and dives in, wait for her, “enthusiastic, loyal.”
Conversely, in “Bosque / Forest,” the story which with the collection concludes, a first-person plural narrative unfolds as a group of men walk aimlessly through a humid territory brimming with plants of enormous foliage and swarms of unknown insects. Lost in the wilderness, the group, which is mostly referred to in the we, is unable to orient itself, ambling about sorely exhausted, and increasingly without hope. They are in the heart of the monte and, as they walk, they realize that “what our hands do out there, becomes useless in the monte; what we need them to do here, our hands just don´t know how to do it.” Some men give up entirely and, knowing that this is a death sentence, they nonetheless to sit down in places “that immediately become depositaries of the rubble tree despise.” Right in the heart of darkness, where there is “not an inch of free space, not a single place where they could lie down and dream,” they “listen to fear, which is approaching as a murmur in between the threes, filling in the empty trunks, the eyes of the wasps, the dead leaves.” Unchanging, the sound of the monte numbs them. As leaves continue to cover their heads, sticking to their sweaty bodies, they become little by little one with the monte. The fusion, which is deadly, completes the we, linking human and non-human beings in an asphyxiating unity: “the rotten leaves on the ground will swallow my footprints and all the stench of my body will melt away in humidity…until merging and becoming one with everything.”
In Infrapolítica, Moreiras makes a case for the impersonal as the only way to effectively fight against the political subjectivation of the we. It is through the third person that we choose “not our freedom,” he says, “but everybody´s freedom.” While the community of the we generates a political subject, thus contributing to the history of domination; the passage through the impersonal is the “attempt to produce a politics as a counter-communitarian history.” In this sense, only the third person truly admits the plural. Perhaps it is not at all a hare-brained proposition to read the wandering group of men who fall into the deadly embrace of the monte as the we of subjection; and the girl, who dives into the flood, as the decision-making process of a they afforded by the third person. The result is the same in both cases: death; but the process through which death is achieved varies radically. And if this is the case, are we, in fact, witnessing the same death?
Writing Under Duress
Trees are not the only non-human beings whose perception is invoked in Los árboles. A female dog roams “Lazos/Leashes,” the second short story of this collection, in a third-person limited perspective that skillfully evades the anthropomorphic trap. Cockroaches are both menacing and clairvoyant in “Cosas / Things,” through a first-person singular human point of view which, however, renders the insects´ actions with as acute distinction as the corrosive, inorganic behavior of sand. Insects, which crowd around several of these stories, have their own way to escape subjectivation, especially through sound. As Rossi Braidotti argued in Between the No Longer and the Not Yet, insects not only reproduce themselves at great speed, allowing for “fabulous mutations over night, but they too are fantastic musicians.” As they bite ears or buzz tirelessly around human heads, Peña Claros´ insects generate a sound, a music if you will, that reflects the precarious balance of a natural world under continuous siege. Just as José Revueltas took seriously, at times literally, the drama of the desert in Human Mourning, Claudia Peña Claros is dead serious about the importance of inter-species relationships throughout Los árboles. These contacts are not harmonious, to be clear, but on unremitting peril, the result of ecologies constantly, and often violently, intruded upon. Devastation, which is the sentence issued by late capitalism, turns on the sensory systems of animate and inanimate beings under threat. Writing here is the hyper-vigilance of matter.
Realities Not Yet Named
In “Mundo / World”, Peña Claros deftly juxtaposes the story of a breakup with the lynching of a woman on the street. Violence surrounds both events in an ominous context dominated by politics: “The world has been ending for months now. You walk and if you look at the faces you no longer recognize anyone. It is better not to trust. Politics invades everything. You talk with someone, with anyone, and after ten minutes he is already saying that if the president, if the Indians, that this land is ours and that they will not overwhelm us. Everyone has reasons to hate.” In a world on the brink of personal and social disaster, politics offer no relief. As the crowd surrounds the middle-aged woman, pulling her hair and kicking her in the abdomen, it is clear that politics only exacerbate partisanship and hatred. “Civil death for traitors,” announce the posters taped to the city walls. This is Moreiras’ biggest fear in Infrapolitics: the intrinsic inability of politics to escape “the construction of a closed militancy community around the leader.” While it is true that an excess of privilege-based immunity has shaped a world dominated by techno-capitalism and the instrumentalization of life, Moreiras raises troubling questions too about the possible threats that an excess of community —of blind alliance, of a we forged uncritically for its own sake, of a “mandate towards homogeneity” —would represent for the immunity of singularity.
Peña Claros is no stranger to the vehement brush of local politics. In fact, she was a high-ranking official, Minister of Autonomies, during the second term of controversial president Evo Morales. Trees is his first book after a silence of about 10 years. This is the voice of someone who has traveled long distances and is now back from what? And, most importantly, this is the voice of someone unpacking her belongings and slowly settling where? The world is over, rhythmically repeats to the narrator of “Mundo / World” as the violence of the crowd grows, marking, as a counterpoint, the rupture between the two women. A world has ended. But what may come next is nothing short of alarming: the hatred stemming from privilege and forms of identity politics incapable of providing a resolution to the never-ending battle over land tenure between indigenous peoples and those who are not. To be clear, the charge here is against politics as such. Not against this or that political faction, this or that policy, but against politics itself. And, in this aspect, Peña Claros seems to share Moreiras’s reservations about the inherent inability of politics to avoid systematic and suffocating control over life.
While the couple is dissolving and the beatings of the mob continue in “World,” the narrator´s voice points out: “The time for love is over. The houses will be covered with flags, the heads will be covered with flags, the same colors repeated on people´s mouths.” Out of the rubble of its gloomy present, the future peeks out with its teeth of homogeneity and division. The world no longer exists. The world is over. But who or what says so? Writing, as practiced by Claudia Peña Claros, says so. Only a writing attached with such rigor to the dense materiality of the world, capable of carving passages from the impersonal through the third person, could sound, with such audacity, the alarm of the end times: the radical suspicion about politics is here, but followed by an extreme attention to the potentiality of realities not yet named (and surely, for now, still unmentionable).
Cristina Rivera Garza is a Mexican author and professor best known for her fictional work, with various novels such as The Iliac Crest winning a number of Mexico’s highest literary awards as well as international recognitions. She is a regular contributor of Literal Magazine via her column Overcast. Her Twitter is @criveragarza