Sunday, 15 January 2017

a history of violence [oscar martinez]

Martinez’ book consists of 14 terrible chapters which document life on the wrong side of the tracks in Guatemala and El Salvador. There is no way to do justice to the stories Martinez recounts. The author puts his hand in the lion’s jaws. He describes a world which seems medieval in the way in which power is orchestrated. The powerful’s capacity for brutality is that which defines their power. Souls are just pawns in their games. The logic is that survival, that of the powerful, depends on their capacity to be more brutal than the next man. Martinez talks to the practitioners and the middle men and the victims, those who have escaped with their lives. The things he discovers come straight out of Hieronymous Bosch. 

Why does any of this matter? Martinez’ introduction, as fine a piece of writing as you could hope to come across, addresses this. Why should we, who live in privilege, even take the trouble to learn about the sufferings of those caught up in the Central American drugs wars, or stuck on the immigrant trail? (And here Martinez’ book takes on an even more telling prescience.) Martinez acknowledges that the problems in Guatemala and El Salvador are so extreme that there is no quick solution. However, in his words: “My proposal is that you know what is going on. Because I believe that knowing is different from not knowing. I believe that knowing, especially with people like yours, who know how to wield politics, is the beginning of a solution. I believe… that knowing is what moves the waves. You can be one of the waves.”

Martinez here is addressing a US audience, whose workforce and economy is shaped by Central America labour and immigrants. Who knows what will happen over the course of the next four years. But the book shows us that political structures we believe, in our sheltered states, to have been despatched to the annals of history, continue to thrive. Progress is a myth that belongs to the privileged few. Martinez’ book needs to be read to see what’s on the other side, (pace Cormac McCarthy), all the more so as so much we previously took for granted begins to unravel, We need to be vigilant in our societies to protect them against the terrible forces of unmediated power, which Martinez describes. We also need to do all we can to seek to help those that suffer in those states where the State is too weak to protect its own citizens. Borders melt. The problem on the other side of the fence will get here in the end, if we allow it to fester. 

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