No voice from heaven
Peruvians of all social classes and political orientations sat biting their lips and fingernails last week in front of television sets in the comfortable sitting rooms of the well-to-do or in crowded bars in shanty towns. La Teta Asustada (The Milk of Sorrow but, literally, The Frightened Teat) was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, the first Peruvian film to go that far. That director Claudia Llosa, the niece of Mario Vargas Llosa, and Magaly Solier – the quechua speaking actress and singer from provincial Huanta, Ayacucho – could well bring back an Oscar sparked an eruption of national pride not less intense than when Peruvian born-Kina Malpartida snatched the WBA super-featherweight title in Madison Square Garden in February of last year.
It is ironic that a film whose expressive power derives from its depiction of the brutal contradictions that lacerate this fascinating Latin American country – the tense cohabitation of the miserably poor with the very rich – should have united persons of diametrically opposite social and political extraction, even if only for one interminably long evening, an evening that ultimately resulted in “their” film failing to get the Oscar. La Teta Asustada is, by the way, indeed a great and haunting movie and I suggest you watch it.
Which brings me back to my previous piece in this column where, you will recall, I wrote that although in today’s Peru there “is still plenty of poverty around as well as injustice and corruption, there is an unprecedented will to move on and to overcome an almost fatalistic pessimism” and that “I had not felt this during previous visits” to this country. I took the cue from a very effective advertising clip by one of the country’s two main mobile telephony providers in which an Obama-style voice-over tells poet César Vallejo and novelist Mario Vargas Llosa – two diametrically opposed, politically speaking, world-class Peruvian literary figures united by a visceral pessimism about their “screwed” country’s chances of ever getting unscrewed – that one day Peru will move forward.
It won’t be an extraordinary day, they are told, but just any ordinary day, say, a Monday. There will be changes but it won’t be traumatic. There will be small, almost imperceptible, daily changes. These changes, however, will not benefit a few but everybody. One ordinary Monday, the voice says, everybody will be able to have a good breakfast, an important meal in Peru, a country where some eat – in a figurative but very real sense – much more than others. And then the punch-line: “connected we can do more”.
Evidently, the punch-line has at least two levels of meaning. The most obvious one is the advertisement’s commercial message: “subscribe to our network”. The underlying message – the one that launches the commercial message across the class divide and appears to have succeeded in this intent – is a political one. If we connect across social divisions then we’ll all benefit. Which is what the present Peruvian government, led by Alan Garcia of the centre left APRA party, is really trying to sell and is not doing so too badly. The mobile phone clip and Claudia Llosa’s film “work” because there is evidently a great hunger for overcoming a past of social and political conflict, often a bloody one.
Which is not to say that the country’s people are so naïve as to believe that such a past can be simply forgotten or that if the haves and the have-nots both subscribe to the same mobile phone network – contract the former and pre-paid the latter – social differences melt into air. This feeling that things can get better is accompanied by a realistic wariness based on bitter experience. In La Teta Asustada, the quechua maid is robbed of her native tune by her rich but artistically spent composer employer. She comes back for what she is owed and takes it. In the process she grows out of a past that prevented her from – literally – conceiving a future.
Processes of national reconciliation are complex affairs and require much more than tactical compromises between political parties or between individual politicians.
They are processes that go beyond political parties – at least beyond traditional political parties – and involve – if they are to succeed, large numbers of individuals who do not even dream of themselves as political animals. National reconciliation can only succeed if there is a movement in its direction, a movement that does not make political parties unnecessary but that is not limited by their short-term electoral considerations. A movement that humbles professional politicians (in and out of Parliament) with their little big hates and grudges. A movement of wary individuals who don’t expect promised lands announced by a voice from heaven but small steps forward and a few backwards along the way.
This article appeared in Dr Vella’s column on The Times of Malta. The original article may be accessed from http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20100315/opinion/no-voice-from-heaven