Tuesday, June 11, 2019


 Jean-Luc Godard, Breathless (a film)

Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive 

Andres Resendez, The Other Slavery

Karl Jacoby, Shadows at Dawn

Richard Slotkin, Fatal Environment


 [Apologies for the silence. It's a long story; suffice to say, it's good to be back and writing].

Thanks to the Criterion Collection now having gone online, I have been able to rewatch one of my favorite scenes in all of movie history, a scene from Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless. In this part of the film, Jean Seberg and Jean Paul Belmondo are crammed together in the narrow space of Seberg's character's tiny hotel room, smoking furiously, arguing, flirting, thinking aloud the kinds of existential thoughts Parisians were bound to think in the 1960's. Godard himself pushed the wheelchair in which Raul Coutard sat filming--that's how claustrophobic the scene feels.  Belmondo, a cheap hoodlum, having impulsively shot a policeman, is on the run, hiding out with an unwitting American student and aspiring writer, played perfectly by the ingenue Seberg.  In the end, Seberg's Patricia Franchini betrays Michel Poiccard, who is killed by the police.  It's a great film, and, in 1960, it changed the course of cinema history by adopting the techniques--low lighting, handheld cameras, documentary style, long scenes full of closeups and thick with dialogue--that we associate with French "New Wave" cinema.

What makes the film especially poignant for me is the real-life story of Jean Seberg, who was haunted by the FBI for her support of the Black Panthers--stalked, photographed, libeled--until the Iowa-born expat who lived most of her adult life in Paris took her own life.  J. Edgar Hoover took as great an interest in investigating Seberg as he did in looking into the life of Martin Luther King.  His FBI agents scurrilously accused Seberg of having a child out of wedlock by one of the Panthers, demonstrating again Hoover's creepy obsession with "race mixing," sex, and black males. 

The thought of Seberg harried to a lonely death from an overdose of barbiturates--her suicide note said, "Forgive me. I can no longer live with my nerves"--for sending money to the Panthers seems emblematic of a more terrible story that I have been reading about these past several months. It's the story of America's self-created myth of a white Protestant nation; the internalized and perverted version of the "city upon a hill" rolled together with the myth of manifest destiny and godly providence, leavened with the poisons of slavery, racism, and greed.  Seberg was just one of millions of victims of a crusade to destroy any threat to a mythical country, one that existed in the minds of men whose imaginations were unconstrained by history or ethics. I can't untangle all of the strands of this story yet, but Valeria Luiselli's extraordinary new novel goes as far as anything I have read in coming to grips with this tangled history.

Here is where the story begins: On the border between the empire of the United States and the empire of Spain--this was long before the United States conquered what was then the northern third of Mexico in 1848--a state of nature prevailed. Beginning in the sixteenth-century, the northern Sonora on both sides of the Rio Grande was a source of Indian slaves for the Spanish, whose mines in Hispaniola and Mexico ground up slave labor with ruthless efficiency.  The story of this other slavery is told in Andres Resendez's The Other Slavery, a book that shatters many myths about the Spanish conquest of the New World.  For one thing, Christopher Columbus wasn't only intent on making a fortune in gold; he was also the first slave-trader of the New World, and his plans to enslave the entire population of the Caribbean were thwarted only by Queen Isabella's opposition to the enslavement, rather than the Christianization of the Indians. Resendez's account of the history of the enslavement of the Indians helped me to make sense of something I had always found troubling, namely the canonical account of Indian genocide in the Americas as being due to microbes, an account that largely exculpates the Spanish, and later, the British, from responsibility for the catastrophic demographic collapse of the indigenous population of the New World.  There is no doubting the impact of European disease on an Indian population lacking in exposure to smallpox, measles, and other infectious diseases; however, the Spanish and the British also instituted practices--revolving around impressed labor--that precipitated the destruction of the Indians. The Spanish remained ambivalent about Indian slavery thanks to critics of the practice like Bartolome de Las Casas, but the need for laborers in the mines and on the encomiendas (grants of Indian labor) in northern Mexico led the Crown to find tortuous scholastic justifications for Indian indenture or slavery.  Here I was reminded of the position of Mississippi Delta cotton planters who found themselves, after the Civil War, scrambling for ways to keep African Americans from emigrating north, including actively curtailing the Klan's racial violence and easing, ever so slightly, the odious racial practices we associate with the rest of Mississippi.  In any case, the Spanish, needing labor, ignored the strictures of the Crown, waged "just wars" against the Indians in order to take prisoners of war, or simply enslaved peaceful Indians and sold them to the mines, where the Indian lives were short and horrible.

Image from the1872 Skeleton Cave Massacre, Salt River Canyon
And then there was the war against the "savages." Here I have learned most from Karl Jacoby and Resendez, whose books, by the way, provide excellent background to Cormac McCarthy's important novel Blood Meridian. This is of course a long story, and for my purposes--a review of The Lost Children Archive--suffice to say that Indians were considered savage in direct proportion to their resistance to the Spanish/Mexican/North American conquest of their lands.  The Apaches therefore were the tribe most in need of elimination. Hence the Camp Grant massacre, a story vividly and powerfully told in Jacoby's Shadows at Dawn.  The Camp Grant massacre was a relatively late event in the story of Indian dislocation, enslavement, and extirpation (1871), but reading Resendez and Jacoby back-to-back lays out with clarity and precision the continuity of an Indian policy pursued on both sides of the Gila and Rio Grande Rivers by successive generation of Spanish, Mexican, and North American governments.  If one wishes to dig more deeply into the fate of the Indians of the Southwest, don't neglect Richard Slotkin's Fatal Environment, volume two in his "gunfighter nation" trilogy. Here Slotkin lays out the development of the American identity as it was forged in the blood of the "savages" of the West. Slotkin's isn't Turner's heroic march from Atlantic to Pacific but a nightmare of violence more in the vein of Cormac McCarthy than Thomas Jefferson's agrarian utopianism.

Border wars, Indian massacres, truth telling and memory, love and commitment, parents and children--Valeria Luiselli weaves all of these themes and more into a novel that is so smart, so fresh and surprising, so unforgettable, that now, deep into my second reading, I am still marking up the book, making marginal notes, running off to find books to help me more deeply understand what Luiselli is telling me.

I have read three of her books already: The Lost Children Archive: Faces in the Crowd, Sidewalks (reflective essays full of surprises), and Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, a kind of workbook for The Lost Children Archive.

A 'blended family'--mother and daughter, father and son--buy a Volvo and set off on a month-long car trip from New York to Arizona, to Apacheria, the vast desert extending from west Texas across southern New Mexico and Arizona which was once the home of the Apache. The parents are documentarians, that is, they produce documentaries based on sound recordings.  The husband--Lusielli uses the terms "husband," "boy," and "girl" rather than names, thus allowing the family to become representative and keeping the story from falling into the trap of banality--specializes in the world's soundscape (bird calls, traffic noise), while the wife, who is also unnamed in the book, records voices, conversations, and interviews.  With this simple distinction, Luiselli begins to reveal the fissures in the family that reflect fissures--chasms--in the world outside the tiny space of the automobile.  (Claustrophobia within vast spaces: this was something Lusielli made me think about, just as Godard had me considering how human interactions shift with locale). The husband's mind is rooted in the past, in the destruction of the Apache, in the stories of Indian resistance to the "white eyes," while the wife can think only of the lost children, the immigrant boys and girls who wander in the desolate spaces of the southwest.  This tension between past and present, between the husband's righteous anger and the wife's compassion reveals itself in the daily interactions of the family, in their fleeting moments of camaraderie and in their far more frequent bouts of brooding silence. The family is collapsing, and yet neither wife nor husband is willing to say so. Only the boy, aged ten, and one of the novel's two narrators, is able to face the truth.

Along the empty road, in the mostly silent car, the Archives, the boxes of memory, are unpacked. In them one finds books--Susan Sontag's journals, Geronimo's autobiography, maps of the desert terrain, immigrant mortality reports ("Nuria Huertas-Fernandez, Female, age 9, COD: hyperthermia, dehydration"), postcards, sound recordings, notebooks waiting to be filled.  The boxes of the children are empty, waiting to be filled with their own perceptions of the trip. The boy, an aspiring documentarian himself, takes streaky Polaroids along the way, and filters through these crude images an alternative story of the journey, one that looks inward at the family's dissolution.

Luiselli blends with perfect pitch the mundane details of a road trip--where the family eats, where they sleep--with poignant observations on the horror of lost children, the growing distance the wife feels from her husband and children, the story of the great border that divides not only countries but cultures and histories.  It's a tour de force, rich in visual and psychological description, with a plot that takes a surprising shift when the narrator hands off storytelling duties to the ten-year-old boy.  If there is a single criticism of the book, I suppose it might be of the remarkable sensitivity and intelligence of a ten-year-old; then again, Lusielli is so skillful a writer that you are prepared long before the final, luminescent chapters for the shift in point of view.

If you wish to think about borders, or the crisis now unfolding in the American southwest, you can do no better than read this extraordinary novel.

George Ovitt (June 10, 2019)