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Reviewed by:
  • Cruel Modernity by Jean Franco
  • Marjorie Agosin, Luella Lamer Slaner Professor of Latin American Studies (bio)
Jean Franco, Cruel Modernity (Duke University Press, 2013), 326 pages, ISBN 978-0-8223-5442-0.

Professor emeritus Jean Franco is considered to be among the most acclaimed and influential scholars writing about Latin America today. Her numerous books are not only original and inspirational, but have the extraordinary ability to forge new paths in the field. Her work is varied as well as prolific. Professor Franco has written about a variety of subjects including Peruvian Poet César Vallejo in her book César Vallejo: The Dialectics of Poetry and Silence, women in Colonial Mexico in Plotting Women: Gender and Representation in Mexico, and her collected essays Critical Passions, where the reader encounters her inquisitive mind as well as her extraordinary capacity for analytical thinking.

Since the early seventies, Professor Franco has been exploring the essential connections between literature, culture, and human rights. Her essays on the theme of the disappeared and her interest in marginalized communities and indigenous rights have also placed her at the center of important critical debates that examine the role of the scholar and the writer as advocates for human rights.

In her most recent book Cruel Modernity, Jean Franco is at her best. This is an impressive study representing varied themes, meditations, and interpretations on the nature of cruelty in Latin America. In addition, she covers the evils of state sponsored terrorism and the role artists, especially photographers and film makers play in denouncing the culture of terror and cruelty that has defined Latin America since the turn of the century to the end of the era of military dictatorships in the nineties.

Even though this is a book that centers in the history of cruelty from the perspective of Latin America. It is also a very universal book that can be read as a metaphor for other places in the world. Franco recognizes that cruelty is inherently human, especially the cruelty we see toward women and children as well as the marginalized indigenous communities throughout the world.

This book is deeply impressive in its depth and scope. Franco has an extraordinary command of philosophy, history, and the social sciences, including the complex history of Latin America. At the same time, Franco has the strength to ask why such terror is possible, why the genocide of indigenous communities in Guatemala was allowed, and why nations have engaged in the perfection of cruelty and terror while the numbers of those that advocate for justice diminishes.

I was very impressed by each of the nine chapters included, especially by the poignancy of her vision. The chapters dedicated to the aggression of military governments in Haiti and the Dominican Republic is written with an extraordinary perception. It was also very moving to read the Chapter Eight of this book, “The Ghostly Arts,” as Franco is able to depict the ways in which literature, photography, and film accurately represent the cruelty and atrocities experienced in Latin American countries. It is particularly interesting how Franco explores the works of visual artists such as videographer Catalina Parra and filmmaker Patricio Guzman,. These artists are devoted to denouncing human rights violations of innocent citizens in Chile and Argentina in their work.

Franco also addresses the unsolved murders of Ciudad Juarez and the ways [End Page 266] in which gender and human rights intertwine in order to systematically victimize women and children in the final chapter, “Apocalypse Now.” I consider this chapter to be the strongest in the book, due to the depth of her analytical thinking and her intellectual honesty.

I consider this book as essential reading for all those interested in the field of human rights, especially those interested in the ways in which state terrorism remains too often unpunished. It is also fundamental to all who study Latin America, as I consider this book among the very best in Franco’s multiple writings.

After reading Cruel Modernity, one is compelled to think that to act is essential, that to recognize the pain of others is a fundamental, and that we must all struggle to fight against cruelty and move towards...


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pp. 266-267
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