Central America’s longest and deadliest civil war, the Guatemalan civil war – running from 1960 to 1996 – left the country torn apart by state violence and massacres. This conflict between the government of Guatemala and various leftist rebel groups supported by ethnic Maya indigenous people and Ladino peasants – the rural poor – resulted in an estimated 200,000 deadly victims. Moreover, this civil war resulted in 40,000 forced disappearances: the vast majority from rural indigenous communities, including civilians and children.


The brutal conflict that, to this day, the world knows little about, can be listed among the many episodes of civil war and abuse that Latin American dictatorships have made themselves notorious for. In the past decades, many countries in the continent have tried to come to terms with their violent past by establishing ‘truth commissions’. Yet, dealing with widespread human rights violations has proven itself to be a difficult task, as the uncomfortable truths of the past still continue to linger and disrupt the present. In the quest for the truths of Latin America’s controversial past we therefore attempt to move beyond the analysis of truth reports and explore the potential of literature, which could function as a disruptive genre of human rights.


Truth commissions have limited access to retributive justice in the form of prosecution and punishment.


The Limitations and Challenges of Truth Commissions
In an attempt to reconcile a Guatemala ripped apart by violence the Historical Clarification Commission was established in 1994, as part of a negotiated transition from war to peace. Like other truth commissions, its goal was to establish peace and democracy in a country that was trying to recover from a long period of violence and internal wounds. Thus, truth commissions are bodies of restorative justice that look into past abuses in an attempt to ensure non-repetition and reconciliation. Operating under the flag of transitional justice, the commission’s rallying call is “never again”.


However, as exemplified in the case of Guatemala, truth commissions face many challenges. A major obstacle is that they have limited access to retributive justice in the form of prosecution and punishment. In 1996 the Guatemalan truth commission published its final report Guatemala: Memory of Silence (Guatemala: Memoria del Silencio), containing over 7,300 testimonies, and the “Agreement on a Firm and Lasting Peace” was signed in December of that same year. Yet the commission was strongly limited in its recommendations. The Guatemalan truth commission was not allowed to name the perpetrators nor call for legal prosecution, so most of those responsible for the human rights violations have faced no charges following publication of the report. In fact, only one Guatemalan officer incriminated by the report has been convicted.


The Problem of a Single Truth
However, the primary aim of truth commissions is not finding legal ways to retrospectively punish the guilty parties in history. Rather, they seek to reconcile a country in which a strongly divided population of both perpetrators and victims have to form a nation and a society again. The idea behind reconciliation projects is that the only way for a population to rehabilitate from a traumatic experience is to uncover the truth about its controversial past. This is why, in the preamble of the truth commission accord of Guatemala, the parties state:


The people of Guatemala have a right to know the whole truth concerning these events, clarification of which will help avoid a repetition of these sad and painful events and strengthen the process of democratization.[1]


But how can “the right to know the whole truth” be guaranteed? This is where another problem presents itself: truth commissions run the risk of engaging with a project that often ends up shaping and enforcing one single truth, instead of respecting the multifaceted nature of historical memory.


Genres of Human Rights and the Potential of Literature
Considering these challenges, it becomes clear how difficult it is to address human rights violations in a context of national reconciliation. Perhaps it is time to think about different forms of writing to come to terms with a past of violence and suffering. We should acknowledge that truth reports, providing legal and official documentation, constitute a very specific genre within human rights discourse. We can however shift our attention to the many other forms through which this discourse can circulate. Among them, literary production takes a primary place for its capacity to give voice to unofficial truths, to the untold stories.


“Novel Truths”
Literary scholar Paul Gready, who has explored the relation between literature and truth commissions, points out how literature has a specific potential to explore the uncomfortable truths and unfinished business agendas at the heart of human rights conflicts.[2] By coining the term “novel truths” he argues that unique truth practices and repertoires are available to the novel. Rather than seeking answers, novels have the potential to ask questions and as such can shed light on the strengths, silences, and shortcomings of truth commissions. Novels can offer multiple narratives of truth, which is why, Gready stresses, they should be thought of as valuable and complementary contributions to truth commission reports.


After Human Rights
Whereas Gready’s analysis of novel truths focuses on the relation between historical truth and literature, Literature and Human Rights expert Fernando Rosenberg is interested in how certain literary productions engage with human rights in such a way that it allows a new critical angle to emerge. He suggests to define this critical framework as after human rights, which is also the title of his book.[3]


This perspective, as he explains, acknowledges the need for a new human rights vocabulary that resists being incorporated by dominant discourses, and upholds the rejection of a humanitarianism that is only instrumental to politics or to market rules. It is an after that is both a continuity of and a rupture with human rights discourse; a sort of renovation that literature has the potential to enable. Departing from this after human rights position, we turn our attention to a particular case study; Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness.


“I am not complete in the mind.”


After Human Rights: Senselessness.
Senselessness is narrated in first person by a man who has been hired by the Catholic Church to do the copyediting for a long report of a human rights commission in Central America. It is never specified what country the report refers to, but many details hint at it being Guatemala. This fictionalized take on a human rights report is not carried out by the typical man of letters dedicated to his job. In fact, the narrator shows no particular devotion to the ethical call of denouncing past violations, or to the Catholic institution he works for.


The book opens with a quite disruptive – and somewhat revealing – statement: “I am not complete in the mind.”[4] Pronounced by one of the survivors of the massacre of the Guatemalan indigenous population, the narrator annotates this and other poetical phrases from the report in his notebook. But this one, in particular, will haunt him as he becomes increasingly aware of his own senselessness. The violence he reads about in the testimonies slowly drives him to an uncontrollable madness. It is through a mad mind that the reader encounters the stories of deaths, tortures, and physical and psychological sufferings. Such a narrator, who lacks all moral commitment to the human rights cause and who seems more likely to be working for money, ends up being shocked by the beauty of words that tell a hardly describable violence.


Encountering the painful testimonies leads the narrator to acknowledge his own state of psychic incompleteness, as his paranoia is ratcheted up to “truly unhealthy levels”.[5] This is caused not only by the violence he reads of in the report, but also by the constant fear of some conspiracy threatening his life for his involvement in this ‘mad’ project, which seems senseless in and of itself. The narrator exclaims:


“Nobody in his right mind would be interested in writing or publishing or reading yet another novel about murdered indigenous people.”[6]


Madness and Trauma: Between Knowing and not Knowing
Nonetheless, by writing “yet another novel about murdered indigenous people”, Castellanos Moya is enacting a critique on the progressive human rights discourse. He presents a fictionalization of the human rights report by giving access to it only through a mad mind that gets lost in the meandering of its own paranoid twists. Notably, it is not a coincidence that he chooses someone “not in their right mind” as a narrator.


Cathy Caruth, a literary scholar specialized in the language of trauma and testimony, points out how literature, like psychoanalysis, is interested not so much in the search for a hidden truth, but rather “in the complex relation between knowing and not knowing”.[7] Madness, with its capacity to escape common sense and conventional thinking structures, can therefore be seen as a standpoint from which to bring to the surface what lies in the gap between knowing and not knowing: to speak of trauma from within the fragments of its legacy. In the book, the perspective of a schizophrenic mind functions as an explorative mode to bring fractures and violence to the surface.


To conclude, the author’s choice of a ‘mad narrative’ makes it possible to engage with a human rights discourse that does not seek to fulfil the literary standards imposed by a global market economy, but is aimed at prompting the possibility of a language for an after human rights politics. Through a narrative of madness, punctuated with poetical interventions, Castellanos Moya enacts an aesthetic of disruption that moves beyond the reasonability of the human rights report project.


Thus, as Senselessness exemplifies, literature encourages a political and ethical project that deals with divergent truths of an ongoing traumatic past, and shows its potential as a disruptive genre of human rights discourse.


Editor: Pita Klaassen



[1] Rothenberg, Daniel. Memory of Silence: The Guatemalan Truth Commission Report. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
[2] Gready, Paul. “Novel Truths: Literature and Truth Commissions.” Comparative Literary Studies 46.1, 2009, pp. 156-176.
[3] Rosenberg, Fernando J. After Human Rights: Literature, Visual Arts, and Film in Latin America, 1990-2010. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016.
[4] Castellanos Moya, Horacio. Senselessness (2004). Translated by Katherine Silver. New York: New Directions, 2008, p. 1.
[5] Castellanos Moya, Horacio. Senselessness (2004). Translated by Katherine Silver. New York: New Directions, 2008, p. 20.
[6] Castellanos Moya, Horacio. Senselessness (2004). Translated by Katherine Silver. New York: New Directions, 2008, p. 63.
[7] Caruth, Cathy. “Introduction: the Wound and the Voice.” Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016, pp. 1–9.

Federica Notari and Lena van der Priem

Federica Notari is currently studying Comparative Literary Studies at Utrecht University. Before that, she completed her bachelor’s degree in Philosophy at the University of Bologna in Italy. She is vividly interested in an approach to literature that pays attention to its philosophical implications, such as social and cultural issues. That is why she will dedicate her master’s thesis to literature of migration and new human rights discourses.

Lena van der Priem is in the research master Comparative Literary Studies at Utrecht University. Fascinated by topics such as migration, human rights, and citizenship, she is studying how literature and cultural expression can offer a new perspective. At the moment, she is studying at Universidad de Guadalajara in Mexico for a semester. After her return, she will begin working on her thesis about migrant activism in the context of Latin America.