The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Life Among the Ruins: The Peru Reader

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 19 December 2004

In two recent articles, 'The Broom Flower' (on Robin Kirk's dispatches) and 'No Escape from the Anthill' (on Kirk's translation of Gustavo Gorriti's history of Sendero Luminoso), I've established a few tentative comparisons and many contrasts between contemporary Peruvian and Irish insurgencies. Finishing The Peru Reader: History, Culture, Politics--ed. by Kirk, Orin Starn, and Carlos Iv�n Degregori (Durham, NC/London: Duke UP, 1995), I now conclude my thoughts on further echoes between two lands long linked by potatoes, poverty, and patriotism. Fitting Celtic and Inca paradigms into modern post-colonial nationalism has, to my knowledge, never been attempted. Perhaps for good reason. What we know of both ancient empires come down to us mainly from the reports of their Christian successors, who gave the peoples they converted the ability to write what for so long had been transmitted orally and/or cryptically.

Imagine a kingdom over 3,000 miles long, from Chile to Ecuador, its peoples never knowing the wheel, the written word, or that civilisation existed outside of this vast domain. Like the Celts, legend more than fact seems to have played a role in the Inca narrative. Using only mnemonic devices, knotted quipu, their mentality remains as mysterious to us as what Druids truly believed. Attracted by a sophisticated culture rich in gold and silver, the Spanish gradually achieved a foothold in the area before--literally--topping over its king. As they had succeeded in worming their way into the core of Aztec power over two years, so their patience paid off again against overwhelming odds. The Incas, like the Aztecs, had only lately attained hegemony over hundreds of subject peoples. Unlike the Aztecs, the rule of the Incas proved less harsh. The Incas divided up land and resources so all could survive, and avoided uprisings by transferring subjects to other areas of Inca rule in complicated levees of laborers and their families. Pedro de Cieza de Leon gives an engrossing report of how this process forced peace. Guam�n Poma de Ayala penned a 1,200 page letter to King Philip III of Spain about the Inca bureaucracy--a bit's excerpted here--in which he details this society in which he was raised. Incan power, however, was short-lived even before Pizarro came; the Incas had been decimated by plagues advancing years ahead of the conquistadores. Their dominion tottered after a civil war in the 1520s. Lacking primogeniture, sons fought for control of their realm. Pizarro, learning of this strife, manipulated it--as had Cort�s in Mexico--to the advantage of his 150 soldiers and 60 horses. One day in late 1532 at Cajamarca, each of the Spanish averaged 14 kills over a couple of sunset hours--around 8,000 unarmed troops died while thousands more encircled the fortress, not daring to enter the conflict they witnessed. The conquest had been achieved by Spanish cunning and Incan naivete--the latter had waited too long to kill off the few soldiers, having been flattered by the Spanish that they had come to help Atahualpa crush rival rebels from the civil war. The Incas allowed these intruders to walk into the centre of their stronghold. They had prepared to murder them or make them eunuchs--and to steal their horses and guns.

But, like Strongbow and MacMurrough in 1169-71, invaders gained the throne and never abandoned it again. Internal strife and the chance for allies from abroad in Irish and Incan power-struggles led to collapse of unstable rulers whose hold on power lacked consensus and suffered from clannish competition.

This overthrow, studied through John Hemming's masterful chapter from his The Conquest of the Incas, led to the Spanish dominance over the Incas. Yet, as the editors stress in their selections following, the following centuries led not to a neat native vs. European divide, but--as in the Irish-English case--an array of castes, degrees of cooperation or resistance against the new ideology, economy, and spirituality brought by an occupier to a subdued territory. Unlike the Irish, the native Peruvians had a totally different belief system that had been totally practiced when its conquerors arrived. Christianity, arguably shared by both mediaeval nations in the Anglo-Irish clash, had already taken hold of the Irish to mingle and overlap with older traditions before 1169; after 1532, militant Iberian Catholicism pursued aggressively the elimination of Incan rituals and beliefs. Steve J. Stern, in 'Tragedy and Success', rigorously sifts archival evidence to prove that, rather than a 'timeless' and 'unspoiled' land untouched by European influence, the post-Conquest period teemed with those who entered willingly the Spanish culture to advance their own interests, and that sexual, economic, and familial gains often trumped loyalty to past traditions.

A parallel circumstance comes to mind: on �rainn, or Inis M�r, the high number of inhabitants intrigued visitors as survivors from supposedly the last holdout of the Celts--yet many of Dun Aengus' tribes carried substantially English bloodlines, thanks to the garrisons posted there from Cromwell's time onwards.

And, whether in the Andes or Aran, those who could or would not enter into cooperation or collaboration with their rulers suffered. A minority, anglicised or hispanised, prospered. The majority did not. Consider the fate of the O'Neills. Stern summarises: Hispanism symbolized the conversion of Indian society's foremost figures into partners of colonial rule and exploitation, a widening split of interests, loyalties, and orientations that accompanied differentiation into rich and poor. It symbolized, too, a loss of "confidence" that touched all sectors of Andean society. Poor Indians understood very well the temptation to escape or soften burdens by allying with the world of the colonials, in a search for personal gain that weakened community solidarity and confirmed the superiority of the Hispanic over the Andean. (129) Certainly any observer of the crumbling of the Gaeltachta� or those cringing as 'bungalow bliss' spreads over the Irish landscape can find precedents here. Like the Hiberno-English, the creolisation of Peruvian culture advanced; Amazonian, African, European, and Andean residents continue, over the past five centuries, to mix and mate, and, over this same period, prejudice and poverty continue as well to separate.

Subsequent coverage of Colonial and then Republican Per� lacks the inherent drama of the Conquest and the fascination of pre-Columbian lore. Yet, as with Ireland under British occupation, parallels persist. Flora Trist�n's proto-feminism found itself projected upon the veiled ladies who walked unchaparoned in Lima; they became as exotic as those from a harem, or shawled and red-petticoated posing for illustrated London Sunday supplements. A magistrate's decree to abolish Quechua and Incan customs reminds one of the Statutes of Kilkenny. T�pac Amaru may be not be as familiar to us as Tupac Shakur (named by his Black Panther mother after the Cuban-Marxist revolutionary import that in turn took its name from a supposed 'last of the Incas' rebel), but he closes an era of, between 1720-80, over a hundred Indian revolts. Examining Amaru's actions, romanticisation has obscured the reality: both Spanish and natives had granted him a much greater degree of freedom in his dissent due to their shared expectations that he would act according to the Inca standards of conduct. T�pac's army's hierarchy integrated colonial organisation; rebels followed the Spanish model--by which they were supplied with wages, coca and alcohol--and this latest claimant to the Inca throne expressed fealty to the King of Spain and Catholicism even as he revived Inca royal trappings. Shades of the O'Neills again. Like the fate of 1916 leaders, the public death of T�pac and his coterie exacerbated colonial-native tensions rather than suppressing them.

So, as with post-Independence Ireland, war followed Per�'s four-year insurrection leading to freedom from an imperial crown--in 1824. Border tensions erupted against Chile, which took over portions of its rival. Allegiances divided, traitors were charged, and--in a familiar pattern--the Peruvians most admired by teachers were those who sacrificed their lives, outnumbered by far in often pointless conflicts. Peruvians savored two themes: heroic martyrdom and 'scientfic' rationalism. The trust in progress and lust for profit beckoned many into the vastness Per� contains. As a reminder of what was transforming the Amazonian interior, for so long relatively isolated from the coastal cities and the mountain plains, this anthology includes Manuel C�rdova's enthralling account of his stint as a teenager captured by natives and his story of acting as a go-between with Brazilian rubber-traders as he, by now unaccustomed to clothes, must don them briefly and with a few words of Portuguese has to turn himself back into the mestizo he once was--before his abduction at fifteen. His tale of being caught between two ways of life reminds me, in an Irish context, of Lord Edward Fitzgerald amidst the Native Americans during the Revolutionary War.

Politics grips early 20c Per�; The Gaelic Revival's counterpart could be the indigenistas. Sinn F�in roughly might pair off with APRA; even if Fianna F�il and deValera don't exactly match with populist reformer-military officer-cum-dictator Juan Carlos Velasco. Luis Valc�rcel, in his musings about the superiority of the ancient culture, reminds me of Pearse; socialist Juan Carlos Mari�tegui and Connolly could have found many points of agreement. Literary influences, with Jos� Maria Arguedas merging Quechua expression with Spanish control, might transfer to Synge  Poetic surrealism by C�sar Vallejo and the Parisian exiles Joyce and Beckett could converse enigmatically; the squatters from rural areas immigrating to the outskirts of Lima, turning deserts into pueblos jovenes (young communities; instant shanty-towns) might remind some of Travellers, some of Davitt's Land Leaguers, some of Ballymun. Previous articles I have written for The Blanket cover in detail the rise and demise of devolved intellectual Maoists into the Shining Path. Contrasts with Irish republicanism, blessedly, outnumber comparisons for Abimael Guzm�n's personality death-cult that provoked a barbaric, nihilistic, and catastrophic twenty-year 'long war'.

In closing, Per�, like the North of Ireland, faces a wider panorama than previous decades have allowed its people to contemplate. Threats of apocalypse recede; pressures of capitalism and a dynasty of hapless politicians less willing to assist their poorer citizens than to make themselves millionaires on the global market perpetuate uncertainty. Brutality in both nations by those fighting and those resisting a rebellion have wearied millions and killed thousands. An anonymous soldier tells of his own culpability in an interview that could have come from a Para or an FRU operative. A student who drifted into the Senderos speaks of his murders and his fear that he will be forced back into the ranks of the SP as (at that time) they vowed to win by detonating the capital. Emigration, long a given for the Irish, has more recently enticed Per�; thanks to air travel, a million have left for Miami, Paris, or Tokyo. Meanwhile, millions move into Lima, swelling its size and its slums as the Shining Path and its suppressers from the police and military made many into desplazados.

Yet, in a provocative essay, evangelical Protestantism has emerged out of the guerrilla era as a counter-force to Marxism, Catholicism, and the coca trade. Many in both cities and villages have vowed to sustain self-governing entities to control crime, create jobs, and educate themselves. A funny folktale, poems, fiction snippets, photos, and journalism on gay activists, feminists, and urban organisers round out these 500 pages. A cholera epidemic slinks towards Lima even as Alberto Fujimori slurps cebiche for the cameras. A young woman leaves for the city, and after years at odd jobs exports back heavy skirts to her colder compatriots in her mountain village--but she will never go back, unless to visit in her new shiny car. The editors wrap up their introduction, from the perspective of a decade ago, as war faded but the bank balances failed to brighten. They wonder if Per� faces a second-class rank in the league of nations--never Rwanda or the Sudan, but a vacation or research destination--to ogle at or to theorise upon. A dumping-ground for laundering cash or obsolete computers? Since 1995, Fujimori, who had made himself dictator, pushed Per� even lower down the ladder; ousted by Alejandro Toledo--El Chino replaced by El Cholo--the government continues to slump and inflation staggers--only 10% of those polled at present support Toledo. Without being fatalistic, perhaps--as in an Irish context--people survive by coming together as a clan, or in the Incan case, the ayllu--a group of 30-40 people among whom one could always seek and share support. And, in both Irish and Peruvian milieux, such comfort can be enhanced by chemicals. One of the best excerpts here reminded me of Tim Mackintosh-Smith's book on Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land when he evokes the narcotic camaraderie created by qat. Coca leaves being a far milder form of what Westerners abuse as cocaine, Catherine J. Allen's 'The Hold Life Has' blends personal testimony with anthropological frameworks to produce a provocative scene of the other side of the Reagan-Bush drug war, in which the escape all of we humans seek somehow bonds people closely together, for better and worse, even if it isn't the Maoist utopia the senderistas demanded. Coca's truly organic, cheaper, and a calmer opiate for the masses. If Per� could export these benign leaves, not powder to cartels, then it might rescue its economy after all! As we Irish know, don't count only on the next crop of potatoes.





 

 

 

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Index: Current Articles



21 December 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

3rd Intl. Conference Against Isolation: Speech by IRSP Delegates
Liam O Ruairc and Gerard McGarrigle, IRSP

Spot the Light
Anthony McIntyre

Unionism in the Dáil
Dr John Coulter

Let's Get Penitent!
Brian Mór

Street Seen Sleeping Bag Appeal
Jon Glackin

Life Among the Ruins: The Peru Reader
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Listen to Sharon's Little Helpers
Paul de Rooij


16 December 2004

Failed Entity
Michael Benson

Out of the Ashes
Brian Mór

Identity Crisis
Mick Hall

Lights, Camera, Inaction
Jimmy Sands

St Joseph, Patron Saint of the Peace Process
Anthony McIntyre

Breeding Ground for Racism
Dr John Coulter

Torture in Chile
Tito Tricot

The Broom Flower: Robin Kirk's The Monkey's Paw: New Chronicles from Perú
Seaghán Ó Murchú

 

 

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