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Rodrigo Rey Rosa: El material humano (Human Matter)

The Guatemalan Civil War lasted from 1960 to 1996. During the war the government side committed numerous atrocities against the left-wing opposition and the native population. La Ilsa is in the North of Guatemala City. During the war it contained various police facilities, including a torture centre. Police records were sent there and an Archive Recovery Project was created to clean, sort, catalogue and digitise these documents. By chance, a huge cache of the police identity files and other related documents were found buried. These were unearthed and added to the project.

Rey Rosa gained access to La Ilsa to research the cases of intellectuals and artists who either had been investigated by the police or had collaborated with them as informants. This book is a novelisation of his researches. It has been called more notes for a novel than an actual novel, in that it a novelisation of his not always successful efforts to explore the archive and find out what happened during the war.

The first thing he noted was that nearly all the police identity files were signed by one man, Benedicto Tun. Tun founded the bureau and ran it for many years. He seems to have signed every police report on individuals.

Our narrator made a list of the most striking or grotesque records and he gives us this list, an account of various individuals and what they were arrested for. A lot of them were political – communism clearly was a crime, as was anything the authorities considered subversive. Quite a few seemed to have been arrested for odd reasons. One man, for example, was arrested for suspicious activities, to which his file had been annotated that his mother was a whore. Another man had been arrested for disobeying his father.

Our narrator – I shall call him Rey Rosa as that is who he is – has various difficulties. Initially, the director of the project seems helpful but, gradually, he never seems to be available or cancels appointments, asks Rey Rosa to keep away or even disappears. Eventually, Rey Rosa finds out that the chief has a somewhat unsavoury background. This is a major running theme throughout the book.

There are several other running themes. One is his relationship with Tun’s son, who is very much alive and agrees to talk to Rey Rosa about his father and what happened to him. (According to his son Tun Senior was treated badly by the authorities.) Like the director, Tun Junior is not always easy to get hold of, but does produce some interesting documents.

Rey Rosa’s relationship with his girlfriend, Beatriz, and his five-year old daughter, Pía, from a previous relationship are also a running theme, even if, perhaps less interesting. More interesting are the continuing threats, often subtle, that he gets. For example, he gets a phone call out of the blue from an undertaker offering their services, He frequently gets phone calls, when no-one responds, as well as overt threats. He even considers going into exile but abandons the idea.

We also follow one story – the murder of some Salvadorean delegates to the Central American Assembly by some police officers. We learn more about this during the book.

Above all, Rey Rosa learns of the horrors of the Civil War. He comments the list shows the arbitrary and often perverse nature of our own unique justice system, which laid the foundations for the widespread violence that was unleashed on the country in the eighties and whose aftermath we are still living. Jorge Ubico, President of Guatemala during much of the war said Execute him. We’ll find out later about suspects arrested and this seems to have been the rule: Kill first, ask questions later.

The native population were particularly badly treated. A writer, in 1924, commented The Indian cannot be a citizen. As long as the Indian is a citizen, we Guatemalans will not be free. Those poor wretches have been born slaves, they carry that in their blood, it is the heritage of centuries, the cursed fate that the conquistador imposed on them, and that does not seem to have changed much, even after the war. Even Nobel Prize Winner Miguel Ángel Asturias said Truth be told, the Indian shows signs of psychological degeneration; he is a fanatic, a drug addict, and cruel.

What he does find out is that the government and police were not the only ones that behaved badly, with many of the guerrillas also committing atrocities. Kidnapping for ransom money was common on both sides. Rey Rosa’s mother was kidnapped for six months and only released when her husband paid the ransom. One of the reasons for his searches – and possibly one of the reasons why he was discouraged – was to find the identity of his mother’s kidnappers.

His conclusions are not positive. The violence is still continuing – he give us figures. Two comments he makes are very pertinent, firstly: the thought that perhaps one has to be a bit immoral to be a moral person, at least in certain aspects, in order to understand the “mechanism” of morality and, secondly, We come to the conclusion that, miracles aside, there’s nothing good to be expected, except perhaps a moral revolution (unlikely) or intervention by a higher power.

If you know little of the Guatemalan Civil War or even if you know a fair bit about it, this book will certainly bring home to you the horrors that happened and, to a certain degree, are still happening. It is not going to go away so easily. One police officer comments We are waging a battle against Evil. That is how extrajudicial executions are justified. There is, however some progress. The archive he was studying is now online (in Spanish) and people are more aware of what happened. We can only hope that the work of people like Rey Rosa and the archive staff will make everyone more aware of the horrors that went on and try to ensure that they are not repeated.

Publishing history

First published in 2009 by Anagrama
First English translation in 2019 by University of Texas Press
Translated by Eduardo Aparicio