- Cruel Modernity by Jean Franco
No book dealing with torture can be a pleasure to read, but if any one comes close, and for all the right reasons, that is Cruel Modernity. Franco faces the grisliness of her subject matter with acumen, erudition, and courage. Far from being an afterthought in a long and distinguished career, the study is a vigorous and timely contribution.
Its goal is to describe how modernizing projects in Latin America have imposed themselves through a systematic and unrestrained use of violence. Franco shows how a lifting of the taboo underwrites such projects, leading to the most egregious atrocities. The time period and terrain covered are vast, from the massacres committed by the Trujillo regime along the Dominican/Haitian border in the 1930s to ongoing acts of narco-sadism in Mexico and Central America. The corpus surveyed, which maps onto those atrocities, is equally vast: social science studies, films, novels, poems, artworks, testimonios, and truth commission reports from half a dozen nations.
Cruel Modernity interweaves fictional (primary) and non-fictional (secondary) sources as it takes readers back and forth in time and space. In the hands of a less adept writer, this multifarious trajectory would disorient; in Franco’s, it gradually configures a big picture, privileging breadth over focus. Authors appear in connection to each other and not necessarily within their national traditions. They range widely in acclaim and provenance, from big names like the much-criticized Vargas Llosa, to obscure figures like the Dominican Freddy Prestol, to those who do not write primarily in Spanish or Portuguese, like Edwidge Danticat or Junot Díaz. Meanwhile, the almost compulsive repetition of certain tropes, like the exploits of the infamous Guatemalan special forces known as kaibiles, speaks to the profound indignation that motivates the book. [End Page 389]
Franco’s grand narrative is reminiscent of Adorno and Horkheimer’s revision of enlightenment after the Holocaust, and equally evocative of the ambitious connect-the-dots approaches of Eduardo Galeano or Naomi Klein. The volume sits among those referents, for it combines critical theory with activism, adding an important scholarly apparatus. Franco recognizes the eerie family resemblances between the atrocities committed on, amongst, and by assumed radicals across the Americas. Her study is not so much about memory, as it is about “the magnitude and the incalculability of loss” (21).
What compels Franco is the will to understand horror, even if, as she acknowledges, her efforts are tempered by the sheer limits that horror imposes on understanding. And yet Cruel Modernity is able to bring nuance into matters so grim that the mind tends to oversimplify or look away. As Franco’s readers, we learn that sexual crimes function as social warning in feminicide, while this logic does not apply to mass rape during civil war (17). We weigh evidence on how crimes against women often produce bonding among predominantly male perpetrators, but also on how women, less frequently, have been perpetrators as well. We distinguish guerrilla fighters’ voluntary sacrifice from their unit leaders’ justification of “revolutionary justice” (127). And, throughout the book, we witness how cultural products can variously sustain, resist, or challenge abusive social structures.
Each of its nine chapters is organized, horresco referens, around a poignant phenomenon: xenophobia, cannibalism, necrophilia, torture, internal guerrilla purges, mock/failed executions, brainwashing, desapariciones, and feminicide. These bind together case studies, more or less firmly, from around the hemisphere. Defamiliarizing connections abound, as when we ponder on the death of Roque Dalton, at the hands of his comrades in El Salvador, vis-à-vis similar actions by the Ejército Guerrillero del Pueblo in Argentina. Ditto for the suppression of indigenous populations in the internal conflicts of Peru and Guatemala, or for the unapologetic praise of SWAT teams in the film Tropa de elite (2008) read alongside torturer confessions from the Southern Cone. Even when the rationale for invoking these and not other referents is not apparent, Franco’s constellations are always thought-provoking.
Cruel Modernity showcases remarkable scholarship by other authors. Key sources include Sergio González Ramírez’s reporting of the crimes in...