Human Matter, by Rodrigo Rey Rosa

It’s hard to know quite what to make of Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s Human Matter: A Fiction (translated by Eduardo Aparicio). The subtitle, “a fiction,” doesn’t really help. This book is based on the time Rey Rosa spent about a decade ago in the Guatemala National Police’s Historical Archive. There is a lot of actual history and real-life events in this book, so much so that it’s hard to know where the non-fiction leaves off and the fiction begins. I was strongly reminded of Laurent Binet’s HHhH because both authors wrestle with the wide gap between what they can prove with historical fact, what they want to know, and what they can never know.

Binet’s problem was that so much documentation had been destroyed or otherwise lost since the end of World War II. Rey Rosa’s case is a lot more difficult because there are people who don’t want him in the Archives. These archives are a gold mine of information about the crimes and atrocities committed by the police under Guatemala’s dictatorships. Perhaps powder keg is a better term than gold mountain. As it is, Rey Rosa is there on sufferance. At the beginning of Human Matter, Rey Rosa is abruptly told not to come back to the Archive. It takes him days to get even a vague “reason” for his suspension. He pursues other channels and pulls in every contact he can to try and get back into the Archive. Meanwhile, Rey Rosa follows other leads to get documents that are Archives-adjacent; he’s on a big, unspecified hunt for something.

Ostensibly, Rey Rosa is hoping to find information about who kidnapped his mother for ransom in the early 1980s and to learn more about a shadowy but strangely powerful criminalist, Benedicto Tun, whose work is all over the archive. In reality, it seems like Rey Rosa is looking for whatever he can find. Human Matter begins with lists of people who were booked for political crimes, criminal offenses, witchcraft, disobedience towards parents, and sometimes no reason at all. From these lists, Rey Rosa visits libraries and conducting interviews to get a better idea of what the National Police were up to, especially in the 1950s. Readers who don’t know much about Guatemalan history (me, apart from what I picked up from Kelly Kerney’s novel, Hard Red Spring) may feel at sea. I recommend at least a quick trip to Wikipedia before picking up this book.

Human Matter is a meandering book, ably translated by Eduardo Aparicio, who really captures Rey Rosa’s voice. The more I read it, the more I liked it, even though I’m not sure what Rey Rosa was trying to accomplish here. I liked it because I liked reading about Rey Rosa’s increasingly dangerous quest for information, the questions he asked about the meaning of the documents he found, and whether or not it would be better to leave the past in the past. I also liked the way that Rey Rosa moved between micro and macro views. From the lists of names and crimes, Rey Rosa shows us criminal statistics compiled by the National Police. Holding both of those ideas in my mind sharply reminded me of the fact that statistics have stories behind them. The stories, what little we know about them, can make us doubt the data we see in front of us. We like to think of history as a solid bedrock but that image doesn’t always hold up. In Rey Rosa’s case, the bedrock is quicksand. Readers who like to think about the ethics of history, I think, will find a lot to like here.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

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