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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Human Matter

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

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To purchase Human Matter

Title: Human Matter
Author: Rodrigo Rey Rosa
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 173 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Human Matter - US
El material humano - US
Human Matter - UK
Human Matter - Canada
Le matériau humain - France
El material humano - España
  • A Fiction
  • Spanish title: El material humano
  • Translated by Eduardo Aparicio

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Our Assessment:

B : solid personal novel of contemporary Guatemala

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Libération . 8/7/2016 E. Franck-Dumas

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ce recul amusé, ce goût pour l’absurde, l’on aime se dire, depuis le confort de notre propre situation, qu’on l’aurait adopté en pareil cas. Mais ne nous leurrons pas : c’est bien un châtiment, absurde, terrible et vraisemblablement infini, qu’on touche ici du doigt." - Elisabeth Franck-Dumas, Libération

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Rodrigo Rey Rosa offers a (dis)claimer at the beginning of Human Matter, making sure readers go into the text aware that:

Though it may not seem to be,
though it may not want to seem to be,
this is a work of fiction.
       The first-person account does (apparently) hew close to the author's own experiences, but Rey Rosa emphasizes that this rendering is fiction -- autofiction of the as-close-to-life-as-imaginable variety, but nevertheless.
       Like Rey Rosa, the narrator is given access to the then-new Guatemalan Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional, an enormous haul of police records un-/re-covered in 2005, and like Rey Rosa he is eventually 'suspended' from digging around, leading to a long back and forth as to whether he can eventually get access again.
       The records are sensitive material, in a country with a horrible record of violence by the state against its citizens, not just historically but up to the present day; the narrator notes that:
For my own safety, and because some of the case opened after 1970 could still be active or pending in court, he asked me not to consult any documents dated after that year.
       The narrator's mother was kidnapped in 1981 and held for some six months (as, in fact Rey Rosa's mother actually was), and eventually the narrator learns that one of the possible reasons why he is later kept from the archives is due to concern that he might be nosing around, looking into that still unsolved case. Even aside from that, there is much material that is of possible cause for concern (and the wonder is that he got access in the first place).
       Ironically and counterproductively (for those hoping to keep his interest at bay), the narrator notes that the suspension, preventing him from digging deeper, acts as a spur:
In any case, my interest in the Archive as novelistic material, which was beginning to fade, has now been reawakened because of this call.
       Human Matter is presented as a series of Notebooks and Sketchbooks, some practically diaries. It includes the domestic -- the tension of his relationship with 'B+', the time he spends with young daughter Pía, dealing with family, including his mother's medical issues -- and while much of this is almost incidental, it grounds the story well in his present-day everyday, contemporary Guatemalan life. As far as the archive goes, he becomes particularly interested in the man who founded the Identification Bureau (in 1922) and worked there for almost five decades, and whose name appears on the countless documents that went through his hands, Benedicto Tun. When the narrator is unable to work in the archive proper he is still able to investigate Tun, and he finds and contacts his son (also named) and eventually gets more information through him.
       Early on, the narrator collects some of the material from the archive -- a sampling of the crimes which people are detained, booked, and arrested for, for example (which includes: "shining shoes without a license", "dancing the tango in the brewery 'El Gaucho,' where it is prohibited", "not wearing an apron while selling bread", "releasing a vulture in the Capital movie theater" -- and the impressive: "having set fire to a mountain"). A (non-)conclusion is reached early on:
It would not be wise to conclude anything on the basis of the chaotic and capricious information contained in a series of police files that resisted time and weathering by chance. The number of files that were lost or disintegrated into humus is certainly considerable. But 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.
       Rather than simply focus on the archive-material -- soon no longer directly accessible to him, in any case -- Rey Rosa's account instead shows this history and its aftereffects -- not necessarily at the fore, in all its brutal ugliness, but always looming. If the threats no longer seem as immediate and horrible, there's nevertheless a constant sense of menace -- sometimes very real and close, as in the telephone calls the narrator gets warning him off, sometimes at more of a remove, as in the slow (non-)workings of the bureaucracy as he wonders whether he will again be able to work in the archives themselves. At one point he goes abroad, visiting his sister -- the most scarred by their mother's kidnapping -- and her family in Italy, the sense of damage hardly at the forefront but obviously leaving deep and real traces. Elsewhere, he even toys (very loosely) with becoming a policeman himself -- suggesting: "we must broaden our perspective. I would be a subversive policeman".
       It's a quite effective presentation of the near-recent Guatemalan conditions and circumstances, with the odd (im)balance of the near-normalcy of much of the everyday along with the ever-shifting and still ominous weight of a deeply-entrenched violent history.
       A Postscript added for the English-language edition, dated December 2018, makes for one last alarming turn, as Rey Rosa reports on the controversial firing of the director of the Archive and a significant number of the personnel in August 2018, Rey Rosa deeply concerned about the uncertain situation and judging:
There are many clouds that hover over this valuable documentary collection; the dangers that lie in wait for it are great indeed.
       All along the way, the literary plays a role as well, the novelist -- in this too the narrator's biography is identical to Rey Rosa's -- considering how to work this material into a novel, as well as, all along the way, mentioning some of what he is reading, and reactions to it, notably: Bioy Casares' Borges, Adam Zagajewski's A Defense of Ardor, and some of Stefan Zweig's biographical works, such as on Joseph Fouché. Contrasted with some of the practically documentary bits -- not an overwhelming amount, but in the straightforward, disturbing simplicity of the lists and descriptions adding up in its effect --, it makes for an effective work of personal fiction that captures and gives a good sense of this almost unimaginable history, the story of not just the: "human matter that enters Police Headquartes day after day" but all of Guatemala's human matter.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 July 2019

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Human Matter: AHPN: Reviews: Rodrigo Rey Rosa:
  • Profile by Ronald Flores
  • Q & A with Francisco Goldman in Bomb
Other books by Rodrigo Rey Rosa under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Guatemalan author Rodrigo Rey Rosa was born in 1958.

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© 2019-2023 the complete review

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