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Jesús Cossio’s “Barbarism”: The Graphic Novel as Testimony

By Gabriel Saxton-Ruiz

As a high schooler living in early ‘90s Spain, I spent many a Sunday night nursing a fierce hangover thanks to the exaggerated nightlife on the Iberian Peninsula.   Part of my end-of-weekend routine involved eating a late dinner in front of the TV, constantly switching channels, but primarily alternating between the day’s soccer highlights (on programs with impossibly complicated names such as Gol a Gol or Fútbol es Fútbol) and watching 120 Minutes on MTV Europe.  One such evening, I seem to remember getting sucked into the video for “Bombtrack” by Rage Against the Machine thanks, in part, to the text appearing in the initial sequence of the clip.  The capitalized words on the screen offered the following statements: “FOR 13 YEARS THE PEOPLE OF PERU HAVE WAGED REVOLUTIONARY WAR AGAINST THEIR OPPRESSIVE U.S.-BACKED GOVERNMENT.  THEIR MOVEMENT IS KNOWN AS THE SENDERO LUMINOSO OR SHINING PATH.”  The rest of the video depicted the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the public presentation of Shining Path’s captured leader, Abimael Guzmán, along with other references to the political violence afflicting the Andean nation. 

I have to admit that I wasn’t terribly impressed by RATM’s misguided perception of the Peruvian conflict.  Shining Path was not “the people,” but rather a brutally violent terrorist group responsible for horrendous crimes against humanity, among them several village massacres.  But to be fair, I usually share most of RATM’s political views especially as they relate to advancing the cause of human rights and the need to end torture.  RATM should certainly be commended for raising awareness and engaging the public in a myriad of national and global issues.  

Fast-forward roughly twenty years later and I’m reading the Peruvian press online when an article catches my eye.   Peru’s Ministry of Justice has just censored various images from an art exposition in the Lima municipality of Villa El Salvador chronicling the last twenty years of national history.  It has removed works by Álvaro Portales, Juan Acevedo, and my friend, Jesús Cossio –pieces that allude to Abimael Guzmán and satirize his controversial, headline-grabbing public remarks.  Cossio’s comic strip evokes the same image represented in the “Bombtrack” video, namely the farcical portrait of the Shining Path chief in his cartoonish prison stripes.  According to published speculation, pressure from Movadef, the nascent political wing of the Shining Path, led to the works being censored.  Another opinion on the matter suggested the influence of Martha Moyano, a Fujimorist politician and sister of famed activist Elena Moyano who was murdered by Shining Path in 1992.  Martha apparently objected to the use of the term “violence” as opposed to “terrorism” in the texts on display.  Whatever the reason, I was truly shocked by the censorship and felt compelled to act in my own way: to translate Cossio’s critique of Guzmán and introduce this singular talent to the English-speaking world.

Cossio’s graphic novel Barbarism—Comics about Political Violence: Peru 1985-1990, was originally published in 2010 by Contracultura.  As implied by the title, this book deals with Peru’s recent violent past and uses the Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s final report as source material which thus makes it another space for testimonializing the period of conflict.  Cossio presents a harsh critique of both Shining Path’s brutality and the heavy-handed approach of the Peruvian government and armed forces. 

In the chapter that I translated, Cossio juxtaposes fragments of an interview Guzmán gave to a sympathetic newspaper in 1988 with a horrific description of two well-documented massacres in the Peruvian highlands.  For the most part, I did not alter much of Guzmán’s demagoguery from the oft-quoted “Interview of the Century.”  The one exception occurs in the following section, “A Communist Party has one ultimate goal: Communism.  And when it comes down to it, you are either with us or against us” (6).  The Spanish for the last phrase reads, “Ingresamos todos o no ingresa nadie” (literally, “we will all get there, or none of us will get there” – in other words, “we will all reach Communism, or none of us will.”)  In an effort to draw parallels between two seemingly opposing extreme ideological positions, I opted to borrow a familiar trope from the United States’ “War on Terror,” the discourse of “with us or against us.” 

One challenge I faced while translating Cossio was how to make the dialogues spoken by the Shining Path members not sound overly formulaic or stilted.  For example, the line on page 8, “Silence, one must not question the justice meted out by the Party!” had an implausible ring to it.  However, if one were to view taped interviews with previous Shining Path fighters you would conclude that this type of language was clearly employed by the terrorist organization. 

This section of Cossio’s graphic novel and its corresponding translation are a perfect introduction to the complexities of the Peruvian armed conflict in the final two decades of the twentieth century.  With any luck, they will encourage readers to explore in more depth the nature of the recent violence in Peru and not frame it in Manichean terms as was previously done by RATM.

Published Feb 26, 2013   Copyright 2013 Gabriel Saxton-Ruiz

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