The Legacy of the Caribbean Gossip State
Tú ves condenado, te maté por un chisme.
IN 1964, a year after the military coup that ended his brief tenure as the Dominican Republic’s first democratically elected president, Juan Bosch wrote an essay lamenting that “in the Dominican Republic, politics consists in turning gossip into official State business.”1 During Rafael Leónidas Trujillo’s dictatorship, gossip could easily bring about a person’s downfall; through the use of state-endorsed gossip columns (sometimes written, it was said, by Trujillo himself) and networks of neighborly informants, it also became a key resource for policing dissent and maintaining the state’s monopoly on public discourse. The Trujillo regime, Bosch argues, sustained itself in large part through gossip: “Trujillo magnified the importance of gossip in national politics,” he writes. “Gossip, given its mendacious nature, always engendered calumny, and Trujillo made calumny the habitual form of political struggle” (80). Trujillo’s dangerous propensity for gossip was known not just within the Dominican Republic but across the Caribbean. Pedro Estrada, the infamous Venezuelan national security chief, recalls that Trujillo “was a man of great passions, an extremely dangerous man whose actions were often based on gossip.” He continues: “I have never seen a country in which gossip gained the currency it did in the Dominican Republic. And that was the terror and the fear in which everyone lived. Gossip could cause a person’s disappearance. People rose and fell because of a piece of gossip” (292).2 Bosch, a left-wing politician still angling for a return to power, presents the Dominican obsession with gossip in terms of class struggle. The bourgeoisie, he writes, had “an abnormal psychological nature and could not live without the daily nourishment of gossip; they were—and are—a perpetual source of gossip; they create and consume gossip.” By contrast, he somewhat implausibly claims, “the People, those without work, the peasants, the workers—and a portion of the small middle class—neither produce nor consume gossip” (54). In writing against the establishment figures and military factions that orchestrated his overthrow, Bosch seeks to define his own political project as a counterblast against Trujillo’s gossip.3 His party, he writes, “brought to the country a completely new political propaganda technique. [ . . . ] There was discussion of national problems, not of people; of the solutions to those problems, not of anyone’s virtues or vices” (80). Gossip, in Bosch’s post-Trujillo republic, was something to be exorcized from public life: a discourse tainted by association with the Trujillato and explicitly and irrevocably linked to the fallen dictator’s corrupt, personalist approach to government.
Still, Bosch’s condemnation of political gossip stands at odds with the approach taken by many other Dominican writers, for whom gossip has been a tool with which to manipulate the historical record or a means of probing the historical silences born of authoritarianism. In this chapter, I begin by reading the memoirs of Bosch’s long-standing rival, the poet, essayist, and three-time president Joaquín Balaguer, who used gossip as a political tool with which to distance himself from the Trujillo regime and shape his own historical legacy. I next turn to Viriato Sención’s 1992 novel Los que falsificaron la firma de Dios, which found a wide readership because of the political gossip it promised, and was perceived by many—including Balaguer himself—as a direct reputational attack on the then president. Many subsequent Dominican writers have been fascinated by the use of gossip in narrative battles over history and identity, a theme I trace in Marcio Veloz Maggiolo’s El hombre del acordeón (2003), which pitches a gossipy merengue star against a revisionist historian, and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), which both stages the uses of gossip in the Trujillo era and deploys gossip to rescue the stories of those silenced by the regime. Finally, I turn to Kettly Mars’s 2010 novel Saisons sauvages to explore the way that a new generation of Haitian writers are similarly pushing back against the silence that has long marked their country’s production and using gossip to come to terms with the abuses of the Duvalier regimes.
The Failings of Others: Memorias de un cortesano de la “era de Trujillo”
Where Bosch saw gossip as a moral failing, and perhaps a national character flaw, Balaguer—a more pragmatic and ultimately more successful politician—saw it simply as a means to an end. During the Trujillo years, gossip had allowed the dictator to monopolize public discourse and excise unflattering perspectives or dissenting voices from the historical record. Now Balaguer, having learned from Trujillo’s methods, sought to deploy gossip to shape his own historical legacy. It was gossip, or the promise thereof, that drove Dominicans to flock to buy Balaguer’s memoirs: Memorias de un cortesano de la “era de Trujillo” (1988) was reprinted ten times within thirteen months of its first publication. The book is now in its sixteenth edition, its continuing popularity a testament to the public’s enduring curiosity about the “era de Trujillo.” According to Giovanni Di Pietro, Dominicans “saw in the book what they wanted to see: a collection of the juiciest gossip of public and private life by a man who, thanks to his personality and longevity, practically summarizes the entire history of contemporary Dominican society” (96–97). The whitewashing of history, orchestrated in real time by Trujillo and ably abetted by Balaguer, had created a vacuum that Dominicans longed to see filled. With his autobiographical volume, Balaguer exploited Dominicans’ thirst for knowledge to shape his own public image, preserving his legacy but also ensuring the continuing viability of a political career that would last for well over a decade after the publication of Memorias.
The allure of Balaguer’s gossipy memoir derived, as reviewers in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere were quick to recognize, from its author’s claim to having exclusive knowledge of the workings of the Trujillo government. Readers open the book, Delfín Garasa writes, in the “expectation of knowing what he said about himself and those who had surrounded him in more than sixty years of political life” (460). Garasa views the volume’s title, with its promise of privileged insights into the Trujillo era, as a challenge to which Balaguer largely rises. “In this brave reckoning he does not evade his own responsibility, but leaves the final judgment to history,” he writes (460). Balaguer evidently understood his readers’ desire to penetrate the secretive fortress of Dominican politics, and makes a point of both flaunting and sharing his knowledge. In so doing, he focuses on people, not events, exhaustively cataloging, and at times simply listing, the key figures in Dominican politics since Trujillo’s ascent. This appeared to satisfy many of his readers; after decades of personalist politics, Dominicans were primed for Balaguer’s personality-driven attempt at a first draft of history.
Still, Garasa’s second point, about Balaguer’s deference to the judgment of history, is more problematic. Throughout Memorias, Balaguer presents himself as a marginal figure: a witness to the inner workings of government, but not the power behind the throne. He repeatedly evades questions about his own culpability by pointing fingers at others, most notably Trujillo, his family, and his military allies. In this way, Balaguer panders to his readers’ appetite for gossip, and stokes his readers’ desire for intimate, unauthorized revelations, even as he uses gossip about others to deflect attention from his own role in the events he describes. Discussing the Haitian massacre of 1937, which he calls a “slaughter” and a “holocaust,” Balaguer claims that Trujillo ordered the genocide after downing “great quantities of Carlos I, his favorite cognac” and while surrounded by courtiers and beautiful women (Memorias 63). Balaguer’s prim inclusion of personal details about Trujillo’s decadence exploits gossip’s presumption of ideological alignment between speaker and listener: the more we give in to Balaguer’s invitation to condemn Trujillo’s excesses, the harder it is to find fault in Balaguer himself. Balaguer lays it on thick, writing that Trujillo remained unrepentant even after more than a week of anti-Haitian violence. In a remarkable attempt to distance himself from Trujillo, Balaguer goes on to blame Trujillo’s “instinct” and “crude passion” on “the precariousness of his culture, typical of a man who attended only the first years of elementary school” (64). The death of thousands of people in a genocidal massacre, in Balaguer’s telling, resulted from Trujillo’s character flaws and lack of education, not from any systemic logic of violence in which Balaguer—himself a refined and educated man—could reasonably be deemed complicit.4
This tone, more denunciatory than confessional, runs through much of Balaguer’s volume. Balaguer insists that he had minimal influence over Trujillo and presents himself as a fly on the wall, privy to but not party to the excesses of the regime. Balaguer’s self-description as a cortesano is significant: as Lauren Derby notes, Trujillo cultivated an inner circle of courtiers bound together by ambition, prestige, and mutual suspicion, with “the courtesans’ distinction from those outside the inner circle becoming the crucial boundary maintaining the social formation” (Dictator’s Seduction 8). Balaguer downplays the influence enjoyed by such courtiers, but promises to draw back the curtain and allow the Dominican people retroactive admission to Trujillo’s court. This sense of insider knowledge, of intimate secrets being exposed for public scrutiny, is further bolstered by Balaguer’s inclusion of a vast number of facsimiles of private letters and personal photographs. This is more than just the performance of disclosure: for Trujillo’s courtesans, the personal details of one another’s private lives was a form of currency and a critical means of orienting themselves within the idiosyncratic politics of Trujillo’s inner circle. Derby writes that Trujillo embraced the “symbolic politics” of slavish allegiance to etiquette, “enforcing proper conduct under threat of denunciation,” with people who wore the wrong jacket, picked up the wrong napkin, or lived in the wrong neighborhood liable to find themselves falling precipitously from grace (8). In such a context, gossip was not just idle talk: it was a dangerous but necessary tool, a means of survival, and one that Balaguer—the ultimate political survivor—learned to use well.
In Memorias, Balaguer repeatedly emphasizes the degree to which the Trujillo regime’s authoritarian aspects were concomitant with a profound sense of paranoia that demanded immediate responses to every new piece of information about, or shadow of suspicion cast upon, either friend or foe. “Any piece of gossip whatsoever, even if only a social intrigue or a simple caprice typical of Trujillo’s character, would serve as a pretext for revoking gains that had seemed firm and political positions that the public had judged well-established,” Balaguer writes. “All Dominicans knew this weakness of Trujillo” (216). Gossip, if it reached Trujillo, could spell the end of political careers; equally, however, Trujillo was an active perpetrator of gossip, using it to precipitate the downfall of former intimates. In discussing Virgilio Alvarez Pina’s fall from grace, Balaguer reports that Trujillo’s shifting affections found their expression in the gossip columns:
Alvarez Pina was often a victim of those changes in the whim and will of the one man who dispensed all official privileges. When that happened, the news was announced in the long-running “Foro Público” section of the newspaper “El Caribe.” During one of those falls, Alvarez Pina, like others before and after him who fell from the ruler’s favor, suffered vexing denigrations, which were made public in malicious commentaries prepared in the government’s own offices. All Dominicans read the “Foro” every day. It allowed the entire country to follow the course of Trujillo’s mood and the degree of favor then enjoyed by each and every one of his collaborators. The destitution of functionaries and the fall of those who once enjoyed the greatest degree of official favor was announced, in ominous tones, in that odious column in “El Caribe.” Social gossip, born for the most part out of badmouthing and opprobrium, was taken to the “Foro Público” without the least consideration for the honor of distinguished families, regardless of whether or not they belonged to the palace cliques. (216)
Despite his theatrical disdain for the Foro Público, Balaguer describes a practice that loomed large in the paranoid squabbling and power struggles of Trujillo’s inner circle, and that still weighs on the Dominican imagination.5 Indeed, Balaguer’s project in writing Memorias can be read as an extension of the cynical and deliberate deployments of gossip that took place in the state-sanctioned gossip column. With the Trujillo clan mostly dead or exiled, and an eye on his own legacy, Balaguer gleefully reveals the excesses and intimate secrets of the Trujillo family and its allies, essentially turning the gossip machine they cultivated against them.
In the fourth section of Memorias, “Trujillo’s Relatives and Collaborators,” Balaguer systematically offers intimate details about a long list of prominent members of the Trujillo-era elite. The section opens with a description of Ramfis Trujillo’s “intimate encounters with several of the most famous Hollywood stars, such as Debra Paget, Kim Novak and Joan Collins,” and the way his “bacchanals and excesses” adversely impacted his physical appearance (166). Later Balaguer describes Ramfis as “a vindictive being, dominated by an insatiable desire for retaliation” (173). Throughout his memoirs, Balaguer offers an unsparing account of the character and actions of the sprawling Trujillo family, including their having amassed “considerable wealth, sometimes by means not entirely legal” (181); their “psychic imbalance” and “lack of guts” (182); their obsession with “sex and money” (186); and even their “dreadful writing” and poor spelling (183). Other public figures are similarly exposed: Balaguer reports that Roberto Despradel, who in 1938 negotiated the Dominican debt in the United States, showed him a check for $50,000 given as payment for his services (219). Elsewhere, Balaguer states that Trujillo’s secretary, Tirso Rivera, turned over to Ramfis Trujillo $10 million deposited for his father in offshore accounts (224). Memorias is full, in fact, of passages in which Balaguer sheds light on the network of allies that helped Trujillo to embezzle public funds. Trujillo’s allies are also described as facilitating the dictator’s sexual excesses: Balaguer tells his reader that two senior officials, Rafael Paíno Pichardo and José María Bonetti Burgos, arranged orgies at Trujillo’s behest. Even crimes as egregious as those imputed to Trujillo’s intelligence chief, Johnny Abbes García, are framed in terms of gossip: Balaguer writes archly that Abbes García grew so “fond of his role as executioner” that he would wander the palace reading a history book about torture methods. Balaguer reports that “many times I heard him read those pages and accompany the reading with a biting comment or a laugh that was somewhere between sardonic and jovial” (224).6
Through these and other anecdotes, the corruption, debauchery, and violence of the Trujillo era are portrayed as stemming from the actions and character flaws of individuals, rather than from institutional failures in which Balaguer himself could be deemed complicit. Balaguer presents his memoirs as a work of history, but in fact offers a novelistic collection of vignettes that, taken in the aggregate, understand Dominican politics as shaped by the moral and psychological failings of its protagonists.7 Systemic problems are here subsumed in character assassination, with Balaguer using gossip to disperse responsibility for the regime’s excesses among a panoply of individual targets. Balaguer thus uses gossip as a historiographic strategy and also a means of absolving himself of responsibility for the wrongdoings he describes. This is most apparent in Balaguer’s broken promise to reveal what Di Pietro calls “the biggest gossip of all”: the identity of the killers of the journalist Orlando Martínez (97). Above a photograph of Martínez, Balaguer writes:
This page is left blank. For many years it will remain silent, but one day it will speak, so that its voice can be gathered by history. Quiet, like a tomb whose open secret will rise, accusingly, when the time comes to lift the headstone beneath which the truth lies.
Its content is left in the hands of a friend who, for reasons of age, is expected to outlive me and whom I have charged with making it public some years after my death. (295)
Balaguer claims to have inside knowledge about the murder, but refuses either to share what he knows or to explain why he cannot. The blank page taunts its reader and invites speculative gossip: Who might the “friend” be? Why can’t the facts be disclosed now? As Di Pietro comments, “The biggest gossip of all was thus replaced by another piece of gossip, a finer and crueler one: a blank page showing only that Dominicans, fooled by their own good faith as inveterate consumers of gossip, and dissatisfied in their ardent desire, would now have a long wait for the delivery of the goods for which they paid” (97). Balaguer positions himself explicitly as a gossip broker, introducing the blank page by writing: “One of the biggest frustrations that I will take to my tomb is that of dying without having known with certainty the name of the functionary, military or civil,” who ordered the 1973 assassination of the journalist Gregorio García Castro. “In his case, contrary to what happened with Orlando Martínez Howley [ . . . ] there was a confabulation of silence at work that I was unable to defeat” (292). Balaguer here mockingly performs the frustration bequeathed to his readers by his blank page: the rhetorical resonance between the promise of secrets rising from a tomb and the frustration of answers withheld even unto the grave is perhaps not coincidental.
For Dominicans, Balaguer’s blank page stands as a powerful symbol of historical whitewashing. It is also a symbol of Balaguer’s larger project: Balaguer uses the structures of gossip to create the anticipation of full disclosure, but in the end offers only a carefully redacted account, seeking to fill past silences with tales that suit his own agenda and preempt accusations he might otherwise face.8 The blank page fuels speculation by suggesting a secret too juicy to share, thereby diverting attention from Balaguer’s own involvement in the murder of Martínez (who, it should be remembered, was killed after writing a column criticizing Balaguer). A similar exercise can be seen in the poem “Mujeres en mi Vida,” a nostalgic sonnet about Balaguer’s past loves—“I remember them all, and loved them all deeply” (335)—that ends with a poignant lament for the women’s happy homes and the children who “might otherwise have been my children” (335). The poem’s curious placement—constituting an entire chapter and set in an ornate frame unlike anything used elsewhere in the text—seems intended to signal a key, if cryptic, revelation about Balaguer’s life, and to encourage speculation about his past romances. This is a nod, perhaps, to the fact that Balaguer’s sexuality was the subject of considerable gossip; as Ana S. Q. Liberato notes, Balaguer was rumored to have bedded everyone from domestic servants to political appointees, and tales of his purported homosexuality and sexual deviance “circulated through gossip networks” (91). Balaguer offers gossip to preempt more hostile chatter, but as with the blank page, his gossip is once more notably devoid of content: it promises juicy details but delivers remarkably little.
This is an effective strategy in part because of the silence against which Balaguer writes: besides a few hostile whispers, there is little to contradict the versions he offers. As Balaguer well knows, in the absence of more reliable sources, the “open secrets” to which he gives voice become a crucial source for reconstructing Dominican history. The blank page is thus also a taunting reassertion of Balaguer’s enduring narrative authority, a facet of the power dynamic inherent in gossip: the reader knows only what he chooses to tell them. This is underscored by Balaguer’s remarkable epilogue, in which he looks back on his career in mock humility and blames the “irremediable moral deformity of men” for the wrongdoings he has witnessed (364). For himself, Balaguer claims a higher moral ground: “The very acts of betrayal and ingratitude to which we fell victim in the course of our existence are the result of our lack of foresight and our excessive faith in the decency of others. The greatest of the great have erred in this way more than once. Napoleon did not overlook the fact that Talleyrand sold secrets of State to his enemies and that his minister of police also played with marked cards” (366). Balaguer parodies his own tone of modest self-reflection by comparing himself to Napoleon and lacing his final words with references to scripture, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Aristotle. Nobody is infallible, he writes, but his own faults consist in having been too trusting: “Many times, it might even be better to say almost always, the mistakes and errors of a Chief of State are due to a bad report or an intrigue perpetrated by his collaborators” (366). The moral wreckage of the Trujillo regime, and of Balaguer’s own, is recast as the inevitable upshot of the moral failings of others, something for which Balaguer himself accepts little responsibility. Gossip functions not simply as an accusation or a way to fill the empty spaces of Dominican history, but also as a means of self-exoneration. Like his blank page, the text’s overwrought closing is intended as a reminder: Balaguer’s gossip may be partial and self-serving, but after decades of authoritarianism during which diverging accounts were ruthlessly erased, there is little left with which to contradict him.
Power and Titillation: Los que falsificaron la firma de Dios
Balaguer was not the only prominent member of the Trujillato to seek to shape his public image through gossipy memoirs. In the years since Trujillo’s death, a literary cottage industry of exiled family members and other insiders sprang up, bringing the publication of numerous works promising the “true” account of the Trujillo years. Among the most notable is Trujillo: The Last Caesar (1963), by Arturo Espaillat, Trujillo’s chief of intelligence, a breathless, tabloidy account that Russell H. Fitzgibbon describes as “anecdotal, ‘confessional’ (without confessing what really would be worth the effort), scandal-mongering, and highly revealing,” though he concludes that Espaillat “tells little that could not be gained by a thorough reading of the New York Times” and “knows far more than he tells” (551–52). Angelita Trujillo’s 2010 memoir Trujillo, mi padre en mis memorias is a celebration of the Trujillo years, currently banned from Dominican libraries, in which the dictator’s daughter seeks to absolve her father of his regime’s most notorious crimes. The novelist Aida Trujillo Ricart, the daughter of Ramfis Trujillo, has likewise written semiautobiographical works including A la sombra de mi abuelo (2008), which combines affection for her grandfather with a relatively clear-eyed view of his actions. The politician and diplomat Mario Read Vittini similarly promises an insider account in his 2007 memoir Trujillo de cerca, as does the diplomat and industrialist Hans Paul Wiese Delgado in his 2000 work Trujillo: Amado por muchos, odiado por todos, temido por todos.
Such texts raise questions about the reliability of memoirs that purport to reveal the truth about authoritarian regimes. To some extent, the fallibility of such memoirs is a given. “If memoirists didn’t lie their heads off, what would biographers do with themselves?” asks Lidiia Ianovskaia in a 2008 issue of Russian Studies in Literature exploring gossip and slander in Soviet-era memoirs and archival accounts (76). Still, the nature of Trujillo’s gossip state, with its aggressive policing of dissent and its establishment of gossip as a means of enforcing the state’s narrative monopoly, makes Dominican memoirs especially complex, and represents a broader challenge for both Dominican readers and writers as they seek to engage with their nation’s whitewashed history. Deprived of a commonly agreed or even plausibly reliable account of their society and their past, Dominicans often resort to gossip and rumor to resurface suppressed truths, or simply as a means of acknowledging the insufficiency of sanctioned public discourses. They do so, however, in the awareness that the state has not only strenuously policed such gossip, but also successfully used gossip of its own to shape and control public discourse. Gossip is thus both a contested and a compromised form of discourse: arguably the best or only option available to those who have lost faith in official discourses, but one still tainted, perhaps irrevocably, by the interventions of official figures, and successfully coopted—by Balaguer, by Trujillo—to shape their historical legacies.
One of the earliest writers to engage with this conundrum was Viriato Sención, whose Los que falsificaron la firma de Dios (1992) became a hit in the Dominican Republic after winning the country’s Premio Nacional de Novela, only to be stripped of the prize after drawing vocal criticism from then president Balaguer.9 The controversy surrounding Sención’s novel stemmed from its denunciatory nature: the novel features characters easily recognizable as stand-ins for Trujillo, Balaguer, a string of military chiefs, and numerous members of Balaguer’s family and entourage. Through these thinly veiled proxies, the text depicts both the Trujillo and Balaguer regimes as corrupt, authoritarian, and cruel. Many Dominican novels portray the two administrations in similar terms, but Sención’s text is a straightforward roman à clef and was widely assumed by Dominican readers to be based on actual events and grounded in firsthand knowledge of Balaguer’s actions and character.
In short, Dominicans readily recognized Sención’s project not just as fiction but as gossip—a fact that likely contributed to the novel’s popularity. In an article published shortly after Falsificaron, Di Pietro condemns Sención’s work as a “gossip novel” of limited aesthetic significance (97), and argues that it “does little more than collect the gossip that everyone already knows and repeats about Balaguer” (107). Sención’s novel, in this reading, operates rather like Balaguer’s Memorias, in that it plays on people’s suspicions to generate excitement and interest, but in the end offers little in the way of new information. Despite this, Ignacio López-Calvo notes that Sención’s text has been read as a powerful act of artistic defiance in response to Balaguer’s efforts to control Dominican public discourse.10 Either way, it is hard to escape the conclusion that for the nation’s readers, to participate in Sención’s antagonistic and potentially dangerous act of public gossip was both exciting and meaningful.
Like Balaguer’s Memorias, Sención’s novel bases its claim to gossip-worthiness on its author’s insider status: Sención had, for several years, administered a charity alongside Balaguer’s sister and could plausibly claim a privileged view of the workings of the regime. This perceived betrayal may have contributed to Balaguer’s outrage: Balaguer reportedly blamed his sister’s death from a heart attack on her disappointment at Sención’s text, and had the Premio Nacional withdrawn on the basis that Falsificaron was “a work injurious” to Balaguer and his family (qtd. in Encarnación Jiménez 10). Balaguer’s public condemnation of Sención’s novel, however, only increased Dominicans’ interest in the gossip it contained, especially given the president’s reclusiveness and refusal to make any but the most carefully controlled public appearances.
Sención did his best to cater to Dominicans’ appetite for intimate gossip, offering countless details designed more to personally embarrass Balaguer than to provide insight into his regime’s excesses. The youthful Ramos—a thinly veiled stand-in for Balaguer—is mocked for his limp handshake and effeminate mannerisms, and the narrator carefully traces the impact that people’s jibes have on the young man. After being told by a group of classmates that “faggots never win glory,” Ramos takes to concluding his poems with the line “Glory is there”—a “premonitory sentence” that contrives to suggest that the barbed anecdote has portentous psychological significance (89–90). Other lurid episodes are similarly arrayed: Ramos is shown seducing anonymous women on the outskirts of town, or even in cemeteries, finally becoming a “consummate master of surreptitious conquests” (91). After he wins power, an aide is tasked with procuring women, “younger every time,” for the lascivious leader (91). Another popular piece of gossip—the suggestion that Balaguer was forewarned of the conspiracy to kill Trujillo—is similarly indulged: “One of the best-kept secrets is that one of the masterminds met privately with Doctor Mario Ramos,” the text asserts. “The conspirator updated Doctor Ramos on the plan [ . . . ] and in turn invited him—as soon as the elimination was realized—to take the reins of power” (180–81).
Even superstitions are given an airing: toward the end of Falsificaron, Sención includes a solitary footnote recording the clairvoyant Doña Muñinga’s outlandish claim that Ramos “has a pact with the Devil,” and that his youthful vigor is the result of “magico-erotical rites” conducted with adolescent victims supplied by Satan (314). The footnote allows Sención’s narrator a degree of deniability—he doesn’t directly endorse the psychic’s allegations—but the very act of setting it apart from the text, both giving it space and assigning it a named source, serves to perpetuate and legitimize the swirling rumor.
The novel’s fascination with gossip appears in other ways, too. The first third of the novel shows Frank Bolaño and several other characters living in a seminary, under the watchful eyes of the institution’s leader, in an allegory of daily life under authoritarianism:
Arturo perceived a state of extreme tension in the Seminary: there were whispers in every corner and surveillance had doubled. It had always been difficult there to find out what was going on, but this time there was no denying that the center of attention was Antonio Bell: that in July he had been imprisoned for political reasons; that he had been caught setting bombs in public buildings; that they were not bombs, but that early one morning he tried to set on fire, with gasoline and matches, all of the buildings in la Feria; that he had been tortured in Tyrant’s prisons: la Victoria, la Cuarenta, the Government Palace itself; that he was mad. It was an underground rumor, a morbid one: a wasp of mystery transmitted through the tongue, through gestures, through glances, through the pencil.
The communication among seminarians was always thwarted by the proximity of some teacher, and either way, a strict rule prohibited any talk of politics. They were all fearful. (102–3)
Despite the discrepancies in the accounts they hear, the youths rely on gossip—forbidden, but ubiquitous—to keep up with the politics of the day, to toy with the idea of resistance, and to make sense of their own place in their community. Gossip is defined by the surveillance that seeks its prohibition: it is a power struggle between the seminarians and their overseers, with the seminarians’ whispers and furtive looks necessitated by their awareness of the illicit nature of their communication and of the penalties they would face if caught.
Later, Bolaño’s perception of gossip as a resource for self-empowerment becomes more explicit: he taps phones, gathers information about others, and leverages it to his own advantage. Di Pietro reads Bolaño’s character, and his passion for “collecting gossip,” as an extension of Sención’s own (107). But Bolaño is a complex character, concerned not just with amassing gossip but also with the political power he gains thereby. Gossip here is less a subversive force than an exercise in influence and control: Bolaño seeks not to overthrow the government but to insinuate himself into its workings. Though inspired to start tapping phones by his experiences as a jilted and jealous lover, Bolaño evolves into a political spy and becomes one of Ramos’s most powerful allies. His ability to marshal intimate knowledge about others enables him to outmaneuver Ramos’s advisers, including the less sophisticated gossips that populate the Great House, where Ramos’s sisters live. But for Bolaño, power and prurience are inseparable, as is evident in a scene in which he arrives at Ramos’s house:
Frank did not hide the small package that he carried in his hands: he fanned himself with it. Everyone knew that the recorder was inside. . . . And Frank would half smile to the builder, who would soon bury himself in Albricia’s room to settle accounts in dollars, and give accounts of love; would half smile to the functionary who waited, uneasy, for a late-night meeting with the President; would half smile to them all, pointing to them with the edge of the hidden tape where—who knew?—any of their indiscreet voices might be found.
It was a dark weapon, and Frank stroked it between his hands like a sinister toy. (285–86)
Bolaño’s “passion for spying” is motivated not only by a lust for power and knowledge but also by something more primal and perverse (285). Bolaño is presented less as a dangerous spy than as a lecherous voyeur, eager to violate the intimacy of others. The sexual undertones of the narrative—the penetration, the caresses—make clear that Bolaño’s interest is less in espionage than in gossip: he seeks not just information but also titillation and social capital. The same is true when, earlier, he amuses himself by inviting friends to listen to recordings of his girlfriend’s telephone conversations. It is through violating intimacy, and flaunting his power to do so, that Bolaño obtains pleasure.
In this, Falsificaron emphasizes a view of gossip as driven simultaneously by its power to thrill and its power to expose. As the novel progresses, the seminarians’ desperate need to know gives way to a more cynical vision of surveillance and spying as methods of control that are effective, and seductive, because of the private spaces they invade. The power Bolaño gains through gossip is real and widely recognized, in part because gossip is already a critical component of the brutal logic of Ramos’s terror state. People fear not only exposure but also its consequences: Bolaño “soon found fame for his powers of extermination” and “became the man most feared by government functionaries” (292). But if Bolaño’s political enemies understand his gossip in terms of the threat it represents, Bolaño himself views his rise to power, and his ability to entrance Ramos with gossip, in passionate, sexual terms. Bolaño comes to spend “hours in the President’s private room, enrapturing him with the almost musical charm of the freshly recorded phone conversations” (189). In Ramos, it becomes apparent, he has found a kindred spirit, one equally aroused by penetrating the privacy of others: “One of the aspects that the spy exploited the most, in his frequent evenings with President Ramos, was the President’s weakness for chismes de comadre that so vehemently traversed the tapes; but especially the conversations about sex, of the most varying intensity, that some of the recordings captured. Frank, smacking his lips in success, would observe the way that Doctor Ramos would convulse from head to toe, struggling to control his moans, always in absolute silence, whenever eroticism appeared in the machine” (291–92). Ramos’s own voyeuristic instincts thus find an outlet in the chismes de comadre, or intimate womanly gossip, that Bolaño’s tapes reveal, as well as in the sexual conversations they contain. Eroticism and power are presented as sides of the same coin: the intrusions that so arouse Bolaño and Ramos are also the source of their power, and it is perhaps the power itself that makes the gossip so tantalizing.
The relationship between power and titillation runs through Sención’s “gossip novel,” and mediated both its commercial success and its official condemnation. Di Pietro approaches this fact when he writes that the novel is representative of a broader “gossip culture” (96)—but Dominican gossip culture is not, or not only, the decadent amalgam of trivia and falsehoods that Di Pietro suggests. Rather, it is the upshot of decades of highly politicized gossip, deployed by both Trujillo and Balaguer, and of an authoritarianism that left gossip as one of the few discourses still available to Dominicans even as it sought to regulate and limit opportunities for gossip. In such a context, gossip becomes both thrilling and potent: risky, but also explicitly engaged with questions of power.11
There is, moreover, a significance to the act of transcribing, or converting into literature, gossip already circulating from mouth to mouth. The paradox of the Dominican gossip state is that historical whitewashing has left historians more willing than they might otherwise be to accept gossip as a legitimate source of information. In such a context, the recording of gossip becomes a historicizing gesture; certainly, both Balaguer’s and Sención’s texts have been read as such. Derby, for instance, quotes Sención’s novel as straightforward evidence of Balaguer’s abilities as a “silver-tongued orator” (“Shadow” 331); Liberato, meanwhile, cites Sención in discussing Balaguer’s “mysteriousness” and notes that Ramos, as a stand-in for Balaguer, is portrayed in Sención’s text as “enigmatic” and a “master of surreptitious sexual conquest” (214). Likewise, in a profile published as Balaguer was ending his seventh term in office, the New York Times quoted at length from Falsificaron in search of insight into the president’s personality and the workings of his inner circle.12 Even fictionalized gossip, it seems, can add valuable detail and color to the postauthoritarian historical record.
A similar impulse led Dominicans to devour both Balaguer and Sención’s texts, which promised, by revealing private or silenced information, to shed new light on the country’s murky past. We may wonder how uncritically readers approached the gossip they read: few Dominicans, it seems safe to assume, took Balaguer’s self-serving anecdotes as actually absolving him of culpability in Trujillo’s excesses, or Sención’s supernatural footnote as evidence of an actual diabolical streak in their then president. Sención, in fact, engages directly with gossip’s reliability in his short story “La Marimanta,” which is spliced somewhat awkwardly into the text of Falsificaron. In the tale, a civic-minded young man attempts to catch the “marimanta”—a kind of hobgoblin with long purple nails and a white shawl—that is terrifying his town.13 The demonic creature’s appearance is greeted with riotous, perversely joyful gossip, with the townsfolk chattering about the “mixture of scandal and mystery” unfolding before them (270). The hobgoblin is revealed to be a grotesquely costumed but beautiful woman who is having an affair with the town’s priest; the gossip proves utterly inaccurate, but by stirring up the townsfolk, it helps unearth a real scandal. The gossipy anecdotes of Falsificaron, likewise, may not be literally true, but they serve the dual function of whetting the Dominican people’s appetite for inside knowledge about the stage-managed, personalist regimes they have endured, and of calling attention to the countless real excesses of those regimes. The details in Sención’s text may or may not be accurate, but few Dominicans would question the notion that scandals of some kind lie hidden behind their nation’s sanitized official accounts. Even if the true history of the regime is unknowable, Sención’s gossip insists that it is as plausible an account as any other, and a valuable counterbalance to the equally partial, agenda-driven gossip of Balaguer’s memoirs.
Rival Versions: El hombre del acordeón
The interplay of gossip and history can similarly be traced in Marcio Veloz Maggiolo’s 2003 novel El hombre del acordeón, which centers on Honorio Lora, a composer of pro-Trujillo merengues who breaks with the regime—and meets an untimely death—in the aftermath of the Haitian massacre. Lora is modeled upon, and shares a surname with, the real-life merenguero Ñico Lora, whose music was similarly co-opted by Trujillo, but who never attempted the kind of resistance shown by his fictional namesake. From its earliest days, merengue, like many of the Caribbean’s other popular music forms, was an important part of the oral grapevine, a kind of sung gossip.14 Merengue singers were not just musicians: they were tellers of stories and brokers of public knowledge. The musician “became also a chronicler of his time,” writes Rafael Chaljub Mejía. “Witnessing an event or hearing about an occurrence that set in motion his talent, he would throw his instrument on his shoulder, and set off to tell people about it” (168).15 In the Trujillo era, this aspect of merengue was embraced by the state, with officially sanctioned merengue becoming at once a potent nationalist symbol, a means of tapping into and manipulating class-based social tensions, and a way of substituting acceptable gossip and laudatory pro-Trujillo lyrics for potentially subversive musical messaging. Julie A. Sellers remarks that merengue’s “capacity for criticism and social control infused it with both danger and potential,” and was behind Trujillo’s decision to have a merengue group join him on the campaign trail (13). With merengue, as with gossip, Trujillo sought to co-opt and control a popular narrative form, exploiting it for his own purposes while simultaneously curbing its utility as a potential space for dissent.16
Veloz Maggiolo’s novel is fundamentally a text about contested spaces: not just the borderlands themselves but also the popular discourses through which resistance and subjugation are performed. As Maria Cristina Fumagalli writes, El hombre is committed to “a rejection of Dominican Hispanophilism and its Eurocentric and exclusionary notion of civilization” and explicitly engaged with “aspects of popular culture which are the product of the complicated history of the island but have traditionally been occluded or appropriated by dominant discourses (Vodú; magic; popular ‘tales and legends’; merengue)” (On the Edge 167). Gossip, too, in the Dominican Republic is an “occluded or appropriated” discourse, and one that Veloz Maggiolo deploys throughout El hombre to stage both domination and dissent, and to explore the challenges that face the writer in authoritarian or postauthoritarian contexts. Much like Falsificaron, Veloz Maggiolo’s text acknowledges and even embraces these challenges. El hombre opens with the admission that the text has been assembled in pursuit of narrative coherence rather than strict fidelity to the facts, which are elusive and perhaps unreachable:
The versions of this case are many and, in truth, the most relevant thing about them is that through them one can in some way organize the story of what happened. Therefore I make no pretension that everything is as ordered as it should be. [ . . . ]
If I had set out to write expecting to discern truth from falsehood I would have never achieved a more or less coherent tale, so the reader must accept my sometimes using voices out of sequence, phrases that I imagine were once logical, street stories that reached me in various ways and that I cannot justify without making reference to the stages of a common magic that is still being practiced. (11)
The story around which the narrative spirals, inching closer without ever quite reaching a definitive version, is that of the events surrounding Lora’s death, which are told and retold in incomplete and contradictory versions. Lora, once a favorite of Trujillo’s, appears to have fallen from grace after singing of the Haitian massacre, the narrator states, but whether Lora actually fell from grace, and how much that had to do with his death, is unknown and unlikely to be fully resolved. The narrator’s goal, he warns, is not to determine the truth but merely to draw together the divergent accounts of Lora’s death into a coherent account. Seeking a final version, and trying to fully separate truth from falsehood, the narrator suggests, would be an impediment to that goal. In his methodical reconstruction of what could plausibly have happened—or, rather, of what is said to have happened—the narrator relies on “many fragmentary versions” gathered through testimony and gossip from those who knew Lora. The narrator stresses the impossibility of cutting through the chatter to find a single true account: “ ‘It is said that . . . , they affirm that . . . , I have heard that . . .’ Doubts, many doubts” (45). A handful of accounts can be corroborated: four, in fact, “like the gospels” (45). The scriptural reference highlights the possibility of continuing contradictions between the accounts but also the sense that the aggregation of diverging accounts speaks to a kind of higher truth. Though it is impossible to pick between them, they reflect the community’s collective understanding, scrappy and unresolved but still meaningful, of the events in question.
Much of El hombre deals with questions of self-definition, and of communities’ efforts to determine which accounts will shape their collective understanding of the events that define them. In engaging with the Haitian massacre and the borderlands where the genocide took place, the novel is necessarily a study in liminality: an exploration of the negotiated boundaries between Haiti and the Dominican Republic and between Haitians and Dominicans. The inhabitants of the border region, the rayanos, slip between identities and resist easy categorization; like the resolution of the narrative itself, the drawing of a line separating one from the other is shown as a fraught and arbitrary act. The narrator warns: “It might bother the reader that the narrator never becomes convinced of anything, because within the cluster of contradictions about how he was killed, how he was buried, how he was moved to another location after he died, and other calamities that would end up in revenge and in various deaths, the only clear line to reconstructing events where the magical may reach beyond reality was the political influence that predominated among the inhabitants of the border and the rayanos who survived there deciding to be, as of that moment, Dominicans” (13). The narrator and the dictator are shown as conducting similar acts of narrative recomposition: perhaps necessary if the text (or the nation) is to exist in any coherent way, but morally ambiguous and even capricious, and given final shape only by the will of the writer or the leader.17
Given the text’s focus on the ways in which scattered anecdotes cohere into the stories through which communities define themselves, it is notable that so much of the gossip in El hombre is described as leyendas, or legends, rather than simply idle chatter.18 The narrator reflects on this in discussing Tantán’s falling out with Lora. “As a journalist very well-versed in legends, I believe that Tantán’s betrayal has other reasons. It is said that Tantán was madly in love with Remigia, and that she had given him hope, so that that night at the cockfighting pit [ . . . ] Tantán could not take his eyes off Remigia’s breasts,” he states. “From which it is inferred that there was jealousy getting in the way[. . . . ] One cannot trust, of course, that which is sold as a sailor’s legend” (74–75). The fragmented tale’s origins in spoken accounts are clearly signposted, and much of what is described—the man “madly in love” with the woman, his ogling of her breasts—is quintessential gossip. In other passages, too, the narrator describes legends passing through the grapevine in a manner suggestive of gossip: “Legends run, they fly from rooftop to rooftop, they slide down aleros and fall to the ground as big drops of sticky water that wet the few passersby,” he asserts (39–40).19 The narrator’s fusing of gossip and legend speaks to the journalistic desire to turn chatter into a first draft of history. Still, he makes clear that such legends have their origins in gossip: writing of the community’s belief in a phantasmal voice that repeats the words “this man sure does know merengues,” the narrator notes that they are “words legitimized by tradition and gossip” (46). Gossip and legend are cast as a continuum: words and stories shared through gossip cohere—or are curated—into the legends and traditions through which the community understands itself.20
This is not an entirely organic process: throughout El hombre we see people intervening to shape the stories that percolate through their community. The conversion of gossip into legend mirrors Vetemit Alzaga’s efforts to forge respectable genealogical narratives for the inhabitants of the border region—a project that Alzaga claims was initiated by Trujillo himself, who “needed an official historian to give the region something like a lineage” (17).21 Tellingly, Alzaga is not only a pro-Trujillo historian but also an informant channeling what the narrator calls “pasquinades and denunciations” back to the government (67). Alzaga denies this, claiming that he “has kept secret” an incriminating statement made to him by Tocay, but then admits: “Captain González found out about this phrase between domino games because, without any malice whatsoever, I mentioned it to him. [ . . . ] He told me that in the end Tocay was a traitor, and that anyone could have known what I, without malice and after a few drinks, had told him” (96). Alzaga disingenuously casts his betrayal merely as indiscreet chatter, justified by alcohol and lack of malice. Under Trujillo, however, such gossip is dangerous. The captain with whom Alzaga gossips is described as “always searching for those who criticized the government” (83); in such a context, Alzaga’s words carry far more weight than he suggests, and in fact bring about Tocay’s death.
Alzaga also appears to play a key role—depending on whose version one believes—in informing the authorities about Lora’s subversive lyrics, which criticized Alzaga’s bogus biographical work and mocked the pretentious Spanish surnames he granted to favored locals. Alzaga complains to the narrator that giving Tantán an aristocratic last name was “a serious mistake,” because Lora knew his true origins and immediately composed a merengue mocking the pair. “Honorio was skeptical about my creations,” Alzaga laments. “Every time I managed to persuade these peasants, for their own good, that they were descended from people of lineage, he would pull out his accordion and bombard me with improvised verses” (72). Alzaga’s betrayals can be read as part of an adversarial back-and-forth between the conservative historian and the subversive merengue singer: Lora sings back against Alzaga’s historicizing, just as Alzaga gossips back against Lora. Much like gossip, Lora’s merengues are highly adversarial acts of verbal violence: they stage animosities, criticize, mock, and reveal the affairs of others. When Panchito Mejía attempts to seduce Lora’s lover, she warns him: “Don’t go looking for trouble with Honorio, because he can ruin your reputation by speaking about you in a merengue” (61). Indeed, upon hearing of the episode, Lora immediately improvises a merengue:
Anyone who eats donkey-meat
like Panchito Mejía
retains something of the beast
and can’t keep from braying. (61)
Lora’s sung gossip is as effective as a real weapon: Mejía responds by trying to kill Lora but is so enraged by the song that he winds up shooting himself in the leg.22
Merengue performances are shown as confrontational, testosterone-driven clashes: it is no coincidence that musical duels between singers typically follow cockfights. This becomes increasingly evident as Lora’s songs grow more political; his accordion, the narrator notes, “transforms itself almost into a .30–30 caliber carbine, or a .44 Magnum revolver” (29).23 Like taking up arms against Trujillo, singing against the regime is a risky business: the novel suggests that the ill-fated Lora “screwed himself with his numerous verses against the General” (81). Still, Lora takes pleasure in using merengue, the same form used as a propaganda tool by those in power, to record his enmities and preserve the history of La Línea and its inhabitants.24 As Rita De Maeseneer notes, Veloz Maggiolo understands that popular music “can serve as a medium of rebellion and of submission” (236). As with gossip, merengue is a tool deployed by both conservative and radical forces, and a weapon available both to those in power and those fighting against them. This is not just a casual congruence between discursive forms: much of merengue’s power stems from the degree to which it functions as gossip, disclosing and circulating an adversary’s transgressions and challenging the narratives they themselves have put forth.
This is the central tension at the heart of El hombre: from its cockpit merengue duels to the confusion surrounding Lora’s death, the text deals in clashing narratives and rival versions of events. Lora pushes back against the narratives preferred by the Trujillo regime—the “authors of so much death” (88)—just as the regime and its supporters seek, through gossip and denunciation, and perhaps also through actual violence, to suppress the singer’s counternarratives. The result of these vying accounts is an inescapable narrative instability, in which even fiction and falsehoods are better than silence. “Forgetting is the worst thing,” Alzaga argues. “And the worst thing is also to say ‘I do not remember’ when one can invent history without there being anyone able to rebut it” (91).25 The narrator rejects Alzaga’s narrative relativism but also acknowledges that his fabrications—as proxies for the regime’s sanctioned self-narrative—“serve to collect certain versions that might be true” (71). In the gossip state, Veloz Maggiolo suggests, there can be no certainty, no firm historical ground upon which to stand: gossip can resurface different versions of events, but to forge a unitary account, to craft a narrative from the silences and lies and distortions that remain, is the domain of fiction rather than of conventional historiography.
Words as Weapons: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
History is a phenomenon that comes more clearly into focus with time and distance. Balaguer and Sención, writing contemporaneously, sought to influence a still unfolding process of public judgment and to sway the course of as-yet-unwritten histories. Veloz Maggiolo, more temporally removed but—unlike Sención—still writing from the Dominican Republic, grapples with the difficulties inherent in making sense of the sparring versions of history left to the nation by the gossip state and its discontents. Diasporic writers face similar challenges, as can be seen in Junot Díaz’s 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a text that is itself saturated with gossip. Its characters gossip and are revealed through gossip; its Dominican American narrator, Yunior, gossips; even Trujillo is shown as both gossiped about and gossiping. The novel’s proliferating gossip frames an account of the twentieth-century Dominican experience: Yunior’s attempt to write a biography of his friend, the eponymous Oscar, spirals out to incorporate, through succeeding layers of gossip, the broader story of Oscar’s family and, more obliquely, of the Dominican people, the Trujillo regime, and the Dominican diaspora. Yunior deploys gossip both as an essential source of information and as a narrative strategy that allows him to disseminate previously silenced or suppressed stories, in a manner that titillates the reader even as it subtly draws him or her into ideological complicity with him, and seduces them into accepting, and even adopting, the ideological stance on which Yunior’s telling of the events is founded. In so doing, however, Yunior also reveals gossip’s status as a contested medium, capable both of comforting Dominicans and of serving as a tool for their oppression. Gossip, in Díaz’s text much as in Veloz Maggiolo’s, grants a measure of narrative power to those denied a place in official discourses, but is also readily harnessed and largely monopolized by the Trujillo regime, which repeatedly used it to suppress dissent and strengthen its grip on power.
In Oscar Wao, gossip is neither condemned nor vindicated but is rather presented as a malleable, pervasive, and potent narrative form that can be marshaled to very different ends by those seeking to resist or to sustain established hierarchies of power. It is gossip’s malleability, and its ability to be co-opted and deployed by both the powerful and the disenfranchised, after all, that makes it so ubiquitous in Díaz’s Dominican Republic, and perhaps in other societies similarly marked by the authoritarian impulse for narrative control. This recalls the totalitarian aspects of gossip—as a narrative form that denies alternative discourses and seeks to establish its own primacy—explored in chapter 1. Michael Taussig writes that “all societies live by fictions taken as real. What distinguishes cultures of terror is that the epistemological, ontological and otherwise philosophical problem of representation—reality and illusion, certainty and doubt—becomes infinitely more than a ‘merely’ philosophical problem. [ . . . ] It becomes a high powered medium of domination” (121). Díaz’s novel traces the construction and deconstruction of such fictions, describing gossip’s development as precisely such a medium of domination, but also its ability to be used, post facto, to destabilize the dominant narratives of the past.
Much of Oscar Wao, in fact, can be read as an attempt to reconstruct the counterpublic of gossip, to borrow Dalleo’s term, from the safety of temporal and geographical distance. In recounting his family saga, Yunior excavates both the gossip that furtively circulated during the Trujillo era and the many stories that would have been fodder for gossip had there been more scope to speak freely. He frequently does so, moreover, by emulating the cadences and structures of gossip, inserting himself into a Caribbean tradition of gossip as a potent and frequently political form of discourse. This is a culturally appropriate way to tell his story, but also a way to foreground the subversive and revisionary nature of the tales he recounts, and to revivify and lay claim to a counterpublic to which Dominicans had, at best, very limited access under authoritarianism. Gossip, in this sense, maps precisely onto the fraught representational space that Taussig describes: it is a means to challenge the Dominican Republic’s sanitized official narrative but also a tool whereby such challenges can be suppressed. It is, as in El hombre, a space in which a society can negotiate which of its fictions will be taken to be real and which narratives will come to dominate its discourses. Ultimately, Oscar Wao proposes that gossip’s fundamental promise to deliver hidden truths, and its ability to either undermine or reinforce narratives, makes it a narrative battleground over which both the downtrodden and those who would keep them so must vie for control.
Cozarinsky suggests that gossip concerns itself with either exceptional people or exceptional events, and we can see both forms at play in Oscar Wao. In telling his story, Yunior offers up countless tales of the private lives of senior members of the Trujillo regime: some scandalous and some relatively banal, but all made worthy of the telling by the power and prominence of the people they concern. The impetus to discuss the intimate peccadillos of the powerful is driven, in part, simply by prurient curiosity; in the context of a personalistic and authoritarian regime, however, such tales carry more weight. If the leader is the state, then the minutiae of the leader’s life become a matter of genuine importance, and apparently trivial gossip becomes complex and politically charged. More broadly, gossip renders judgment: the complicity and shared moral framework presumed by gossip is leveraged by Yunior to convince his reader of the validity of his opinion of the powerful individuals he describes. Yunior, in gossiping, seeks not just to inform the reader, but to enlist him or her in a revisionary process that will continue as they repeat and recirculate the tantalizing tidbits they have heard—and, in so doing, perpetuate the moral judgments implicit in the gossip they share.
This is apparent when Díaz’s text introduces Ramfis Trujillo, the dictator’s son, “born while his mother was still married to another man, un cubano” (99). Yunior dwells on the most titillating elements of Ramfis’s biography, fusing familial discord, sex, celebrity, and bizarre private habits: “It was only after the cubano refused to accept the boy as blood that Trujillo recognized Ramfis as his own. (Thanks, Dad!) [ . . . ] As an adult Ramfis was famed for being a polo player, a fucker of North American actresses (Kim Novak, how could you?), a squabbler with his father, and a frozen-hearted demon[. . . . ] (In a secret report filed by the US consul [ . . . ] Ramfis is described as ‘imbalanced,’ a young man who during his childhood amused himself by blowing the heads off chickens with a .44 revolver)” (99). Yunior attributes some of his biographical snapshot to a historical document, but the details purportedly plucked from diplomatic papers lack the gravitas of history. They are, rather, a collection of private episodes from Ramfis’s misspent youth, stories circulated through gossip and now mobilized to reveal and tarnish Ramfis’s character. Yunior displays a similar predilection for provocative details in an early footnote describing Trujillo as “a portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulato who bleached his skin, wore platform shoes, and had a fondness for Napoleon-era haberdashery” and was famous for, among other things, “fucking every hot girl in sight, even the wives of his subordinates, thousands upon thousands upon thousands of women” (2).26 Similarly juicy details abound throughout Oscar Wao, and it is easy to see them as gossip mobilized to influence the reader’s view of its target: made salient by Trujillo’s standing, and exploited both to reinforce claims about his character and to mockingly domesticate the larger-than-life dictator and his accomplices. In these dramatically staged stories, the content, complicity, and structures of gossip are readily recognizable. Yunior provides secrets about third parties, using oral cadences and joking, faux-shocked asides, while taking evident pleasure (and anticipating the reader’s pleasure) in skewering and diminishing his powerful subjects. Through such gossip, Yunior presents a ribald Who’s Who of the Trujillato, painting each new crony and henchman in vivid detail, and spending as much time cataloging their personal foibles and sexual proclivities as explicating their role in the regime.
Yunior also gossips about Oscar and his family members, and about other ordinary Dominicans, focusing less on exposing their character flaws and private indiscretions than on revealing the unspeakable abuses and terrors they endured under the Trujillato. Using similar cadences and structures, Yunior once more shares the secrets of absent others—but in this instance, the driving emotional force is not salacious pleasure taken in transmitting tales of debauchery, but rather sympathy spiked with an appalling, unavoidable fascination at hearing the family’s experience of state terror. While Oscar’s family members are ostensibly the subject of the gossip in question, there is a sense in which Yunior’s tales are built less around their victims than around their perpetrators. The “fukú stories” (6) Yunior tells are reflections of the regime’s excesses, and as such speak to Trujillo’s character and his purportedly evil nature. If they are gossip about Oscar and his family, then they are also gossip about Trujillo, and about the extent and consequences of his perceived perversities.
It might seem surprising that Yunior, a hypermasculine figure who brags about spending his days “out chasing the pussy” or “out with the boys” (184), should deploy gossip so freely. Still, as discussed elsewhere in this volume, the gossip of the Caribbean is not (or not only) a gendered practice; it can be the talk of disenfranchised women, but it can equally be the chatter of marginalized men, or a tool used by powerful figures of either gender as they participate in the public sphere. Díaz’s text presents gossip as an adversarial and revisionary practice: Yunior frequently gossips with the explicit intent of subverting or undermining the discourses imposed by the Trujillo and Balaguer regimes. Gossip here stands not as a gendered phenomenon but a fundamentally political one, available to both men and women and rooted in the dynamics of power and narrative control.
Not all of the gossip in Oscar Wao lends itself easily to such readings; the novel portrays and deploys multiple forms of gossip, including gossip as a means for intimates to construct and transmit social knowledge. It is through this more conventional gossip that it is revealed—via “a whisper in La Inca’s ear” (254)—that Belicia, La Inca’s second cousin, is still alive. The “astonishing tale” (255) of a girl horribly beaten and burned by her adopted family is not simply relayed to the reader, but is explicitly staged through revelatory gossip, with Yunior re-creating the very moment of its transmission:
And the wildest part of the story? Rumor had it that this burned girl was a relative of La Inca!
How could that be possible, La Inca demanded.
Do you remember your cousin who was the doctor up in La Vega? The one who went to prison for saying the Bad Thing about Trujillo? Well, fulano, who knows fulano, who knows fulano, said that that little girl is his daughter! (255–56)
Yunior transcribes the gossip, relishing its performative aspects as he re-creates its speech patterns and even its claimed provenance. In so doing, he depicts it as a tool that allows La Inca to receive information about her extended family and thereby navigate the landscape of her terrorized community. There is little that can be done for Abelard, who, now imprisoned, is almost entirely defined by the “Bad Thing” he supposedly said. However, it is the information delivered by gossip that allows La Inca to come to his daughter’s rescue and, in some small way, push back against the indifferent brutality of the terror state.
Díaz portrays the circulation of information as a double-edged sword: through the chatter of prying neighbors, La Inca learns about and rescues Belicia, but this swirling gossip also presents risks. To reveal a secret, even to a close friend, is to risk its broader dissemination and the attendant consequences. When, as a child, Lola is assaulted, the news becomes known by “a sizable section of Paterson, Union City, and Teaneck,” unleashing an “urikán of pain, judgment, and bochinche” (25). A similar episode occurs when Belicia falls pregnant with the Gangster’s child and ignores La Inca’s pleas for discretion: “Please don’t tell anyone, La Inca begged, but of course she whispered it to her friend Dorca, who put it out on the street. [ . . . ] The bochinche spread through their sector of Baní like wildfire” (136). A shared moment of intimacy becomes bochinche—vicious, fast-spreading gossip—as it is relayed and relayed again, until inevitably, fatally, it reaches Trujillo’s sister, the Gangster’s wife, with disastrous consequences for Belicia and her unborn child.
If such danger can arise from a simple moment of unguarded intimacy, then it becomes easy to understand the risks inherent in giving voice to more subversive gossip. After all, Abelard’s plight, and all the suffering endured by his family, springs only from his having spoken a little too freely about Trujillo’s government. Gossip, though a useful source of information, was dangerous, the text insists; to speak out of turn was to place yourself entirely at your neighbor’s mercy:
It wasn’t just Mr. Friday the Thirteenth you had to worry about, either, it was the whole Chivato Nation he helped spawn [ . . . ]. It was widely believed that at any one time between forty-two and eighty-seven percent of the Dominican population was on the Secret Police’s payroll. Your own fucking neighbors could acabar con you just because you had something they coveted or because you cut in front of them at the colmado. [ . . . ] (You wonder why two generations later our parents are still so damn secretive, why you’ll find out your brother ain’t your brother only by accident.) (225–26)
The final parenthetical reveals the bitter cost of the discord sown by the Trujillo regime: not just tales of the regime’s excesses but even family gossip was all but silenced. Indeed, the wariness of unguarded speech became so ingrained that for some the practice remains effectively taboo two generations later. Decades after Trujillo’s fall, Oscar Wao suggests, to reconstruct lost stories, of the family or of the nation, remains a difficult and sometimes impossible task.
The resurfacing of such gossip, as we have seen, is a critical piece of the narrative project underpinning both Yunior’s tale and Oscar Wao itself. If gossip, despite its risks, is shown as providing valuable information for the characters of Oscar Wao, it is also shown as preserving at least some of that information, despite Trujillo’s efforts, and making it accessible to Yunior as he seeks to piece together the family saga. Time and again, crucial episodes from the family’s history can be reconstructed only because of the gossip they generated. Beli’s affair with the Gangster is a prominent example:
This was the affair that once and for all incinerated Beli’s reputation in Santo Domingo. No one in Baní knew exactly who the Gangster was and what he did (he kept his shit hush-hush), but it was enough that he was a man. In the minds of Beli’s neighbors, that prieta comparona had finally found her true station in life, as a cuero. Old-timers have told me that during her last months in the DR Beli spent more time inside the love motels than she had in school—an exaggeration, I’m sure, but a sign of how low our girl had fallen in the pueblo’s estimation. (127)
Yunior draws on old gossip to propel his narrative, presenting it as a useful tool for making sense of both the facts and the social dynamics of the past. The gossip itself may not be strictly accurate, he suggests, but it captures something of the lived experiences of the community in which it circulates.
It is telling, too, that Yunior refers to reconstructing the social knowledge of the period from tales recalled by “old-timers”—essentially, through resurfaced gossip. This is a strategy to which Yunior returns as he slips between his two narrative projects: the reconstruction of a family saga and the reconstruction of a nation’s history. Consider the following passage:
Ask any of your elders and they will tell you: Trujillo might have been a Dictator, but he was a Dominican Dictator, which is another way of saying he was the Number-One Bellaco in the Country. [ . . . ] It’s a well-documented fact that in Trujillo’s DR if you were of a certain class and you put your cute daughter anywhere near El Jefe, within the week she’d be mamando his ripio like an old pro and there would be nothing you could do about it! Part of the price of living in Santo Domingo, one of the Island’s best-known secrets. (216–17)
Oscar Wao is explicitly concerned with the challenges of constructing (or reconstructing) a family’s story in a postauthoritarian nation in which both historical facts and private tales of human suffering have been ruthlessly effaced. Yunior tells his reader to ask his or her “elders,” framing what follows as a reconstruction from temporal or geographic exile: the reader is cast alongside the narrator as a young, post-Trujillo Dominican, a child of diaspora. Yunior’s suggestion that Trujillo’s taste for rape is “a well-documented fact,” meanwhile, is an ironic nod to the lack of any adequate historical record of the regime’s excesses. Despite official efforts to eliminate them, rumor and gossip—those “best-known secrets”—were among the few means available to circulate, and later preserve, the memory of the abuses that took place.
This preoccupation with gossip’s status as a potential salve for the historiographic and narrative scars left by authoritarianism further reveals itself in the defining image of Oscar Wao: Balaguer’s aforementioned blank page. In another of the novel’s many footnotes, Díaz’s narrator offers a portrait in miniature of Balaguer: “Balaguer was a Negrophobe, an apologist to genocide, an election thief, and a killer of people who wrote better than himself, famously ordering the death of journalist Orlando Martínez. Later, when he wrote his memoirs, he claimed he knew who had done the foul deed (not him, of course) and left a blank page, a página en blanco, in the text to be filled in with the truth upon his death. (Can you say impunity?) Balaguer died in 2002. The página is still blanca” (90). This is a pivotal moment in Oscar Wao’s deployment of gossip: Díaz calls out Balaguer’s gossip as a political stratagem and insists that his real legacy is a blank page, a silence. In this, Díaz suggests, the promise of gossip gives way to threat: the wordless page is a pointed reminder of the enduring silence imposed by the regime, and an attempt to assert and perpetuate the regime’s monopoly on gossip. Yunior’s outrage at Balaguer’s silence is palpable in the searing revelations, obtained through the revival of old gossip, with which he seeks to challenge Balaguer and deface or annotate the blank page. Instead of silence, Yunior chooses bochinche: he aims to resurrect and unleash tales that survived through gossip, and to stir up an unrestrained, uncontrollable urikán of moral judgment rather than cede to the regime the narrative control and consequent impunity that it sought.
It is in this context, and against Balaguer’s página en blanco, that Yunior’s many lurid tales must be read. Where the Trujillo and Balaguer regimes sought to eradicate unsanctioned gossip and impose a monolithic national narrative, Yunior seeks to look beyond the blank page, and resurrect and reinscribe the rumors and gossip that were once suppressed. Discussing another Trujillo official’s excesses, Yunior returns to this motif, ironically noting the difficulties inherent in telling the full story of a nation whose people still feel a “lingering unease when it comes to talking about the regime.” He adds: “I’ll give you what I’ve managed to unearth and the rest will have to wait for the day the páginas en blanco finally speak” (119).27 In a nation where history is incomplete and obscured by blank pages, Yunior falls back on the Dominican Republic’s “best-known secrets”—which is to say, secrets spread and preserved through furtive gossip. The “well-documented fact” of the harm caused by Trujillo’s runaway libido will not be found in official records (217); it derives its truth status not from documentary evidence but from rumor and gossip—or, rather, the recollection thereof, from the safety of exile, by “any of your elders” (216). Whether such gossip is historically true or false is generally unknowable, and hardly the point: what matters, from the standpoint of the regime’s survivors, is that it is told at all.
Plausibility here matters as much as, or perhaps more than, the historical record; indeed, for a nation recovering from a regime that routinely erased all record of its misdeeds, the absence of direct evidence can come to bolster the credibility of the gossip in question. If it was worth covering up, the logic goes, then the story must have been true. The tenuous relationship of gossip to verifiable fact is wryly acknowledged by Yunior throughout the text: we see it, for instance, in his account of Abelard’s torture and imprisonment. Though ostensibly persecuted for gossiping about Trujillo, Abelard was also rumored to have been working on a book-length exposé of the dictator’s demonic, supernatural nature. Yunior dismisses the notion as “a figment of our Island’s hypertrophied voodoo imagination” (246), but as Tim Lanzendörfer remarks, the manuscript’s disappearance after Abelard’s arrest lends the laughable rumors a credibility they would not otherwise merit. “The implication that Trujillo must have been after something is obvious, and in the broader context Yunior’s disavowal [ . . . ] becomes a backhanded affirmation,” he writes (134–35). This recalls Sención’s footnote about Balaguer’s supposed Satanic orgies: where Sención provides a source to hint that his tantalizing gossip might be true, Yunior’s denials serve as a kind of ironic validation. The gossip is unverifiable, but so too, in Trujillo’s Dominican Republic, is history itself. In cultures of terror, paradoxically, the very impossibility of confirming gossip’s claims can serve to render them all the more convincing.
In reconstructing Dominican history from tenuous, secondhand sources, Yunior’s goal is necessarily to persuade as much as to inform or educate. In this, too, narrative strategies that approximate gossip play a vital role. As a narrative form, gossip both stages a story and presumes the listener’s acquiescence with the judgments it asserts. By emulating the formal structures of gossip, Yunior’s narrative similarly presumes and seeks to ensure the reader’s acceptance of the text’s perspective and value system. Writing of the Gangster, Yunior tells his reader that “our young villain [ . . . ] dabbled in forgery, theft, extortion, and money laundering” and adds that it “was even rumored, never substantiated, that our Gangster was the hammerman who slew Mauricio Báez in Havana in 1950” (120). The thrilling, if speculative, details, along with the repeated use of the word our to describe the subject while calling him a “villain,” draws the reader into the complicity typical of gossip.
Yunior embraces the relational aspect of gossip, just as he embraces its content and cadences: he revels in and parades his own bias against the Trujillo regime, and in doing so seeks to seduce his reader into accepting the moral framework he proposes. Crucially, however, this seduction occurs not through polemic or persuasion but rather through the simple assumption and performance of a shared perspective: Yunior does not seek to convince his reader of his position, but rather assumes that they already share it, and makes their full enjoyment of the details he shares conditional upon that fact, just as gossip depends upon the nodding complicity of its audience. Gossip is grounded, after all, in its own moral charge, and often comes from a place of moral absolutism: it seeks not to parse or persuade but rather to pronounce judgment.28 By channeling and emulating gossip, Yunior thus simultaneously imbues his narrative with a compelling moral clarity and seeks to ensure his reader’s unquestioning acceptance of the moral framework through which his tale is told.
Inasmuch as Yunior succeeds in winning over his reader, and reinscribing a plausible story onto history’s blank page, his tale stands as a narrative triumph and a cathartic reclamation of power. Indeed, as Guillermo B. Irizarry notes, Oscar Wao’s descriptions of state violence, portrayed “unflinchingly, and at length,” come to serve “as an exorcism” (116), seeking to purge a historical trauma that has hung over the island and its people since the fall of the Trujillato. As Yunior makes clear, under Trujillo the Dominican people had few formal opportunities to express themselves, either in public or in private. A poorly judged joke or comment could bring down an individual or an entire family; faced with such consequences for speech, many Dominicans retreated into silence. In using gossip both to publicly disseminate private or silenced stories and to frame them in clear moral terms, Oscar Wao casts the practice as an effective narrative means of coming to terms with and overcoming the silences and betrayals of history. Gossip, in this context, must necessarily often be a retrospective process of reconstruction: not the restoration of words once spoken but the reclamation of things known but left unsaid. “Ask any of your elders,” Yunior tells his reader, for only now, from exile and decades later, will they finally be able to speak.
The notion that gossip can mediate a valuable and even necessary reconfiguration of official discourses stands in stark contrast to the way in which the interplay of gossip and history has generally been considered. Some scholars, such as Søren Kierkegaard, see gossip as ephemeral froth on history’s still-churning waters; as time passes and the waters settle, Kierkegaard suggests, gossip evaporates into nothing. He writes: “If we could suppose for a moment that there was a law which did not forbid people talking, but simply ordered that everything which was spoken about should be treated as though it happened fifty years ago, the gossips would be done for, they would be in despair” (52–53). Others, equally troubled by gossip as a form of discourse, are less convinced that its babble will inevitably fade into silence. D. A. Miller writes: “One way not to have a story is to tell one about somebody who does: narration is a solid protection against the narratable. It is easy to see how the logic of gossip makes it the inevitable practice of a community that would remain unhistorical” (124). In this reading, gossip is corrosive to both historical and literary endeavors; it is, in fact, the sound of a society turning away from self-knowledge, the very opposite of the view that Oscar Wao defends.
Such criticisms weigh the effervescent, moralizing chatter of gossip against more ponderous and supposedly unbiased discourses and find it wanting. It is precisely gossip’s partiality and judgmentalism, however, that makes it so appealing to Díaz’s narrator. There is a redemptive power to moral outrage in the face of oppression, and in offering a one-sided account Yunior views himself as placing a restorative finger on a set of scales historically weighted firmly against the silenced Dominican people. By showcasing gossip’s ability to reconfigure narratives of power and to surface and circulate private or previously suppressed stories, Díaz’s novel reveals the practice’s value to those excluded from supposedly objective historical accounts. In this sense, gossip provides more than a merely nominal triumph: for those excluded from their societies’ official narratives, gossip can function—even if only retrospectively—as a powerful tool of self-assertion. Indeed, in Oscar Wao the power of gossip is so clearly recognized by the Trujillo regime that it seeks not just to silence gossip but also to co-opt it: officials use the practice not only to reinforce moral values and behaviors but also to affirm and strengthen state-sanctioned narratives. Gossip in this sense emerges not as ahistorical chatter but rather as a sharply contested medium—as is the case in Veloz Maggiolo’s novel—through which public narratives are at once reinforced and challenged: a potent weapon for both sides in their constant struggle for narrative control.
This has historically been a key, if largely unacknowledged, aspect of the social experience of gossip: both a resource for the disenfranchised and a “medium of domination” deployed by the powerful to assert and sustain their narrative monopoly.29 This duality is clearly shown in Oscar Wao, where the Trujillo regime maintains its grip on Dominican society through a sophisticated spy system, itself a network of gossip and insinuation that channels information back to Trujillo. In so doing, the regime regulates private behaviors and conversations with almost supernatural efficiency. Yunior writes: “You could say a bad thing about El Jefe at eight-forty in the morning and before the clock struck ten you’d be in the Cuarenta having a cattleprod shoved up your ass. [ . . . ] Mad folks went out in that manner, betrayed by those they considered their panas, by members of their own family, by slips of the tongue. [ . . . ] It was whispered that he did not sleep, did not sweat, that he could see, smell, feel events hundreds of miles away, that he was protected by the most evil fukú on the Island” (225–26). In fact it is gossip, not fukú, that protects Trujillo. By harnessing the furtive chatter of intimates, the Trujillo regime is able to infiltrate private spaces and rob gossip of much of its oppositional power. Gossip here comes to corrode trust in the private sphere and to strengthen the terror state. Indeed, gossip itself becomes a tool for bolstering Trujillo’s reputation as an all-seeing and all-powerful leader: rather than whispering about the regime’s transgressions, people are reduced to whispering about El Jefe’s power and his preternatural ability to overhear malicious gossip and root out his foes.
In Trujillo’s hands, gossip becomes not just a source of intelligence but also an instrument for humiliating and isolating those who step out of line. The state’s use of gossip goes beyond mere character assassination: as Balaguer’s Memorias also makes clear, government-planted gossip in the Foro Público was widely and correctly recognized as a harbinger of calamities to come. Indeed, after deflecting Trujillo’s lascivious advances on his nubile daughter, it is gossip itself that Abelard most fears. Yunior explains: “For the next three months Abelard waited for the End. Waited for his name to start appearing in the ‘Foro Popular’ section of the paper, thinly veiled criticisms aimed at a certain bone doctor from La Vega—which was often how the regime began the destruction of a respected citizen such as him—with disses about the way your socks and your shirts didn’t match” (223). Trujillo’s spies may themselves inspire gossip—they’re tasked with recruiting sexual partners for their master, Yunior repeatedly reminds his reader—but they also turn the practice to their own ends. As Abelard knew, the gossip column that Díaz dubs the “Foro Popular” mattered not because of the specific information it contained but rather because it indicated who had fallen from grace: it was the first step on a road that led, inexorably, not simply to the loss of one’s reputation but to the destruction of one’s entire life.
Abelard’s fear is well warranted. When the hammer finally falls, he is accused not of denying Trujillo his daughter but rather of “slander and gross calumny against the Person of the President” (233).30 Ironically, the accusation is itself based on gossip: “hidden ‘witnesses’ ” claim that Abelard jokingly said there were no corpses hidden in his car’s trunk because “Trujillo must have cleaned them out for me” (235). Abelard denies having uttered the words, and Yunior, narrating the tale, makes it clear that the real facts of the matter are not only unknown but unknowable: “What’s certain is that nothing’s certain. We are trawling in silences here. Trujillo and Company didn’t leave a paper trail[. . . . ] A whisper here and there but nothing more. Which is to say if you’re looking for a full story, I don’t have one” (243). Once more, Yunior underscores the insufficiency of the historical record, whose gaps can only be filled with whispered gossip. But his retrospective reclamation of Abelard’s story is of little consolation for its subject, who is sentenced to eighteen years in the notorious Nigüa death camp. There, Abelard’s jailers turn slander, presented and received as truthful gossip, into an instrument of punishment, spreading malicious stories to ensure Abelard’s mistreatment at the hands of his fellow detainees: “The guards then proceeded to inform the other prisoners that Abelard was a homosexual and a Communist—That is untrue! Abelard protested—but who is going to listen to a gay comunista?” (239). The text once more insists that gossip can be as much a tool of oppression as a comfort for the oppressed. Gossip, as much as torture or imprisonment, ultimately consumes Abelard: following a makeshift lobotomy, he is left unable to recall his past life, reduced to a subject of gossip even for his fellow inmates. The regime’s narrative victory, its eradication of Abelard’s version of his own life story, is complete.
Abelard’s fate casts a long shadow over Oscar Wao’s narrative. Yunior asks his reader to consider the incident as exemplifying the Dominican Republic’s broader history of violence and of silence: Abelard, robbed of memory and narrative agency, echoes the condition of the nation as a whole. His family, trying to reconstruct its story, always begins with an account of the “Bad Thing” that Abelard said about Trujillo. As Yunior notes, “There are other beginnings certainly, better ones, to be sure—if you ask me I would have started when the Spaniards ‘discovered’ the New World— . . . but if this was the opening that the de Leóns chose for themselves, then who am I to question their historiography?” (211). The suggestion that the family’s story should truly begin with Columbus’s arrival on the island once more suggests a reading of the family as a synecdoche of the nation, and underscores the novel’s attempt to foreground the private stories of individuals—the “brief, nameless lives” of its epigraph—within the larger context of the national history.31
It is telling that Yunior defends the family’s right to construct its history against, or regardless of, Yunior’s own views. Yunior’s writing can be read as an attempt to reinscribe the blank pages imposed on history by the Trujillato, but as Yunior’s tolerance of the family’s historiography reveals, his project is not to replace the regime’s blank page with a univocal and final alternative account. Monica Hanna contends that Yunior “maintains his freedom from the onus of telling the definitive, authoritative version of Oscar’s history and Dominican history” and instead probes the gaps and silences that result from the Trujillato’s drive for narrative control (501).32 There is space in this project for divergent voices, viewpoints, and historiographies. Indeed, Yunior grants himself a sort of gleeful poetic license that frees him from the rigors of academic histories, and allows him to creatively exploit and write into the gaps and silences. Hanna writes that Yunior “does quite a bit of traditional research, reading a variety of primary sources and conducting interviews, yet he still gives himself license to imaginatively recreate elements of the story that are otherwise inaccessible” (501). Through this process, Díaz’s text marks its distance from traditional narrative practices that claim to offer definitive accounts of Dominican history.33 Díaz asserts that he deliberately broke with the historical register in order to avoid being seduced by the larger-than-life figure of Trujillo and to present a demythologized account of Dominicans’ recent past. “The power of Trujillo perpetuates itself in the histories written about him. My book tries to erect a counterhistory,” he states (“Pesadillas”). In this view, the Trujillato’s revisionism presents an all but insurmountable obstacle for the traditional historian, who must rely on the regime’s own sanctioned and sanitized paper trail.34 Gossip, however, operates according to different rules: by definition it deals in the unofficial and unsanctioned, and is not necessarily rendered less convincing by the paucity of evidence for its claims.
The travails of the scholar of Dominican history are memorably staged in Yunior’s tale of “Basque supernerd” and Columbia University doctoral student Jesús de Galíndez, the author of a “rather unsettling” dissertation (96):
The topic? Lamentably, unfortunately, sadly: the era of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina. [ . . . ] Long story short: upon learning of the dissertation, El Jefe first tried to buy the thing and when that failed he dispatched his chief Nazgul (the sepulchral Felix Bernardino) to NYC and within days Galíndez got gagged, bagged and dragged to La Capital, and legend has it when he came out of his chloroform nap he found himself naked, dangling from his feet over a cauldron of boiling oil, El Jefe standing nearby with a copy of the offending dissertation in hand. (And you thought your committee was rough.) (97)35
Díaz, much like Veloz Maggiolo, describes as legend an anecdote that is recognizable—in the names named, the specificity of the grisly imagery, the bone-dry gallows humor, and the perverse pleasure taken in its narration—as tracing the formal structures of gossip.36 Yunior shows the limited capacity of the historian to cope with or accurately depict the actions of a regime that shows no compunction in violently silencing those who promulgate unauthorized versions of the past. There is an absurdity in Yunior’s comparison of Trujillo to a dissertation committee, yet Yunior is serious in his portrayal of the dictator as the self-appointed arbiter of historical accounts and gatekeeper of the historical record. In staging history’s failure, Díaz’s text shows gossip’s enduring utility: it is through gossip, after all, that Yunior is now able to rescue the memory of the murdered history student and to ensure the page is not left entirely blank.
History, in this view, is limited by its own insistence on objectivity and factual accuracy. In contrast, the gossip Yunior offers—tendered from history’s margins, by its victims—is not necessarily diminished by the fact that its truth status is indiscernible. In a discussion of Trujillo’s sister, “known affectionately as La Fea” (138), he elaborates: “There are those alive who claim that La Fea had actually been a pro herself in the time before the rise of her brother, but that seems to be more calumny than anything, like saying that Balaguer fathered a dozen illegitimate children and then used the pueblo’s money to hush it up—wait, that’s true, but probably not the other—shit, who can keep track of what’s true and what’s false in a country as baká as ours” (139). Yunior, like the narrator of El hombre, is aware of gossip’s epistemological limitations: to begin tugging at threads by asking which gossip is true and which is not is to risk unraveling the entire narrative. As the text shows, trading history for gossip does not necessarily leave the reader any closer to the truth. Still, Oscar Wao is marked by the sharp awareness that the public narratives of authoritarian regimes frequently do not even aspire to the truth, but instead perpetuate sanitized and monolithic versions of the events in question. To “keep track of what’s true and what’s false” is impossible, but unbiased truth isn’t the only goal for which to strive. What matters, when those in power have twisted the truth to breaking point, Díaz suggests, is the freedom to approximate what happened or may have happened and to consider a multiplicity of versions. Part of what makes gossip powerful is precisely that even at its most extreme, it is couched in self-righteous terms as the unearthing of hidden truths, the revelation of secrets. Indeed, the relationship between gossip and truth, which has (understandably, perhaps) been largely unexplored by scholars of literature, is a fundamental one.37 Gossip, after all, is one of the few narrative forms where the immediate indiscernibility of the truth it purports to reveal is presupposed. It is notoriously hard to prove, but difficult to disprove; it is usually plausible, not final. Gossip, in fact, foregrounds its own lack of narrative monopoly: while each kernel of gossip promises to reveal a definitive truth, it does so by offering to revise an existing narrative, against which it is itself defined. To participate in an act of gossip is inherently to judge between, or at least to acknowledge, divergent viewpoints and versions of events; where authoritarianism seeks to impose a unitary account, gossip depends upon plurality.38
In its attempt to leverage gossip to establish the Dominican people’s collective narrative, then, Oscar Wao asks for its reader’s credulity, but does not insist upon its own finality. As Roger Sell notes, gossip implicitly recognizes that each story contains its own truth and that each teller’s perspective on a given event may be different. “We participate in gossip, not despite our scepticism, but because we are sceptical,” Sell writes. “If gossip were ever to arrive at an absolute truth about the people it takes up for discussion, it would cease” (221). The will to gossip is not the will to arrive at a single version of any given event but rather the will to test many versions, to hear many accounts, and to construct from them a narrative that seems plausible to the listener, on the understanding that another listener may come to entirely different conclusions. The search for truth ultimately matters more than the truth itself, a point Irit Rogoff echoes in writing that “gossip, by its troubled relation to historical realism, has been postmodern all along” (60). The power of gossip rests not primarily in its ability to provide new historical truths, but rather in its assertion that truth itself is pliable, multiple, and fleeting.39
This aspect of gossip is especially valuable in nations marked by authoritarianism. The narratives that Yunior spins are intended to serve as a collective self-narrative for a fractured people—an alternative to the corrupted, univocal history imposed by the Trujillo regime. In writing Oscar Wao, Díaz says, he sought to look beyond the flattering lie of Dominican unity and to acknowledge the country’s splintered, ahistorical reality. The book, Díaz explains, was conceived of as “an archipelago [ . . . ] a textual Caribbean. Shattered and yet somehow holding together” (“Questions”). It is by acknowledging and writing into the gaps and contradictions in their nation’s history, rather than passing them over in silence, Díaz suggests, that Dominicans can hold their nation together and finally begin to exorcise the lingering ghosts of the Trujillato. It is in this sense that the true cathartic power of Oscar Wao reveals itself: not an act of narrative aggression meant to replace one hegemonic historical account with another, but rather an attempt to acknowledge the insufficiency of the historical record and allow countless individual versions and private stories, the lived experiences of the regime’s victims, to flow free.
In probing gossip’s utility for those who live under authoritarianism, Oscar Wao mounts an effective defense of the practice, while also acknowledging its potential dangers. In Díaz’s text, gossip lacks the gravitas of historical discourse but never devolves into mere chatter; it may be vapid or vindictive or vicious, but it is also purposeful, an act committed with a specific intent and in opposition to a specific adversary. It stands, in fact, as a weaponized narrative form: capable of being used and abused by those in power, but also of providing those who live in cultures of terror with a vital means to navigate and make sense of their fractured collective identity. In this way, gossip is revealed as a valid and even essential form of knowledge, an epistemological tool capable of transcending rigidly binary notions of truth and falsehood, and of exploring the analog: plausibility, plurality, shades of gray. Gossip, for all its moralizing, rejects the Manichean dichotomies insisted upon and used to silence dissent by totalitarian regimes; it occupies a more liminal space, scribbling in the margins of supposedly fixed narratives and irreverently defacing the blank pages of official histories. For the dispossessed and disenfranchised people of Oscar Wao’s Dominican Republic and its diaspora, gossip traces the fault lines in monolithic discourses and serves as a defense—partial, in both senses of the word, but still valuable—against the imposition of narrative hegemony.40
Complicity and Shame: Saisons sauvages
It is not just in the Dominican Republic that gossip has provided a means for writers to delve back into traumatic periods of their countries’ history. As described in the preceding chapter, Haitian novelists, both on the island and in exile, have tended to approach the trials of the Duvalier regimes obliquely: allegory and temporal distancing have offered both emotional insulation against the period’s unthinkable horrors and much-needed cover for authors who feared political reprisals. More recently, however, a new generation of Haitian writers have sought to probe the silences bequeathed to them by authoritarianism. One remarkable such attempt is Kettly Mars’s 2010 novel Saisons sauvages, which graphically portrays a single family’s suffering at the hands of François Duvalier’s fictionalized police chief. While Duvalier himself appears only fleetingly, Mars’s novel has, as John P. Walsh remarks, been correctly read as a “a kind of roman de dictature” (68); certainly, the dictatorship itself and the state’s security apparatus are a constant presence in Mars’s harrowing text. As Yves Chemla writes, Mars is one of several recent Haitian writers who have sought “to take charge of that which appeared unnamable” and to “untangle the knots” of Haiti’s conflicted history. Still, Chemla notes, while Mars’s novel may be a roman de dictature, it is not “a pure fiction: it is also a roman à clef.” The family story that Mars tells is a cipher: a fiction that, Mars asserts, is “inspired by real facts.” She explains: “This situation happened more than once [ . . . ] often, after the book was published, people would come to me asking me to confirm if the story concerned such or such family” (“Interview”). The horrors she reveals speak not just to the fictional family she portrays but to the suffering of the Haitian national family as a whole, in much the same way that the horrors uncovered by Díaz’s family saga serve to frame and memorialize the abuses suffered by all Dominicans.
Saisons sauvages is a tale, then, about the impact of the Duvalier dictatorship in the private lives of a single family—an immediacy that Nirvah, the main protagonist and sometime narrator, presents as a vital part of coming to terms with the legacy of the Duvalier era: “Month after month, we have seen dictatorship’s tentacles tighten around people’s lives, but it has always been the lives of others. We only take the true measure of its horror in the moment in which we are seized in the jaws of this absurd madness of power. Before that, they are rumors, whispers, a hell far removed from our daily lives, which we prefer to forget or deny” (37). Still, as the novel makes clear from its earliest pages, rumors and gossip remain an urgent and acutely felt part of the experiences of those who are entangled in the regime’s “tentacles.” When Nirvah’s husband, a dissident journalist named Daniel, is arrested, she learns of his whereabouts through hearsay: “They tell me that he is still alive. They, meaning anyone with a crumb of information, a sliver of hope. They, meaning an acquaintance whose cousin, imprisoned at Fort-Dimanche, was able to slip a piece of paper outside giving the names of a few survivors—that was a week ago. They, meaning a gardener at the prison, the cousin of my cleaner’s husband, who found out that Daniel is being kept in the right wing of the building” (11).
Armed with this tentative information, Nirvah uses a personal connection to win a brief audience with Raoul Vincent, the secretary of state in charge of Duvalier’s secret police. There, she tells him that she doesn’t know for sure where her husband is and that all she has to go on are rumors. He replies: “Rumors in our country, you see, Madame, are a double-edged sword, a merciless weapon. They liberate and condemn you. They cost you money. They can make you happy, but never for long. They make you vulnerable” (16–17). Daniel’s disappearance makes him the stuff of gossip and rumor, and to try to ascertain his exact whereabouts is a risky business. But Nirvah’s biggest concern is less the risk she runs by asking questions than simply the inscrutability of the Duvalier regime: swallowed up by the state security apparatus, Daniel is now knowable only through secondhand stories. After leaving the secretary of state—who warns her once more not to trust rumors—Nirvah walks out into the sunlight, where behind her “the somber mass of the Dessalines Barracks emerges like a sphinx from a background of shadows” (18). The impenetrable building is packed with prisoners, Nirvah reflects; clearly, her husband is now one of these unknowable people, reachable only through the murky networks of hearsay that serve as a substitute for reliable public information.
While Raoul, who swiftly moves to seduce Nirvah, insists that rumor and gossip are fundamentally unsound, he also makes a point of asserting his own knowledge of and power over the intimacies of Haitians’ private lives. His overtures to Nirvah are presented as a breaking of boundaries: like Sención’s Bolaño and Ramos, he seeks to “assault her daily life,” feeling that he has thereby “penetrated the intimate life of the dissident called Daniel Leroy” and affirmed his own power and authority (63). Later, he makes clear the extent to which his own invasion of private spaces parallels a state-led effort to infiltrate, scrutinize, and control Haitians’ public and private lives: “Our agents are there at cockfights, in stadiums, in brothels. Every day more men and women of every social class join the ranks of the VSN to infiltrate homes, bedrooms, medical clinics, and so forth. They work night and day” (133). The most intimate spaces are under government scrutiny, and Raoul describes the state’s informants in sinister terms as being like a vast and ruthless “flock of guinea fowl” that scours the country for suspicious activity. Raoul’s strange simile hints at the preternatural efficiency of the state gossip networks, recalling Díaz’s discussion of Trujillo’s fukú or even the flying witches of Veloz Maggiolo’s Dominican Republic. “It would be wrong to underestimate their efficacy,” Raoul warns. “Like those stocky birds that nonetheless move quickly, they’re the real sentinels of the revolution” (133).
Nirvah seeks to reassert some measure of control over her situation by gossiping with her friend Maggy. It is through interpretive, analytic exchanges with her friend that she ponders the significance of Raoul’s epilepsy, considers whether to keep the jewelry he sends, and speculates about whether Raoul will free Daniel if she succumbs to his advances (105–8). Still, she is essentially powerless in the face of Raoul’s decision to possess her and unable to learn anything about her husband beyond the scant information that Raoul provides. “I only have his word to confirm that my husband is still alive. Even the rumors seem already to have forgotten his existence,” she says (166). Nirvah knows she is being toyed with but gives in to Raoul; perhaps unsurprisingly, however, she never manages to secure Daniel’s release, visit him, or even find out much about his situation.
Mars presents gossip, despite its limitations, as a key resource for people living under the Duvaliers, and a source of power and status for those who use it effectively. Nirvah’s next-door neighbor, Solange, despite being “not well regarded in the neighborhood,” uses gossip about Daniel’s disappearance to force Nirvah to perform neighborliness with her, telling her “about her life for close to an hour” and pointedly addressing her as “neighbor” before finally revealing how, from her stoop, she saw the Tontons Macoutes taking Daniel away (42). Solange’s gossip is portrayed as a more appropriate and potent form of discourse than Daniel’s essays and diaries, which lead him only to disaster. “Praise the lord! I don’t know how to read or write,” she laughs when she hears of the reason for Daniel’s arrest, warning Nirvah that literariness is “discomfiting to people” (43) before plunging into a gossipy account of her life as a prostitute and manbo. This is a critical point: Daniel writes against Duvalier’s falsified account of Haiti’s history, which he insists is a mere fiction. But as Walsh notes, when Daniel seeks to expose Duvalier in the public sphere, “his truth is immediately silenced because the public justice sought by the journalist no longer exists” (74).41 As Daniel learns to his cost, the public sphere is no longer a space for resistance or even for the assertion of memory; only through informal discourse, such as Solange’s gossip, can Haitians preserve an authentic identity of their own.
But if gossip offers something of Dalleo’s counterpublic to Haitians, Saisons sauvages also shows it as intrusive and even violent. Nirvah soon comes to fear Solange’s knowledge of her private life: “Is Solange spying on me? Does she have a way of knowing what is happening inside my house? [ . . . ] All my determination is melting beneath the impression of being surrounded on all sides by inquisitive looks. I no longer control my life, a sensation that is slowly giving way to panic” (142). Solange uses gossip to reinforce the frayed ties of her community, but for Nirvah, wracked by guilt, gossip serves instead to stage the failure of such bonds. Much as discussed in chapter 1, pervasive gossip comes to highlight Nirvah’s awareness of being watched and judged by those around her, in a manner that recalls the claustrophobia of Roger Mais’s short stories or even the panoptic surveillance society depicted by Antonio José Ponte. Under Duvalier, Saisons sauvages suggests, the intimate communities associated with gossip grew strained to the point of collapse, and neighborly interactions devolved into a parody or perversion of the friendly camaraderie with which they are more usually associated.
Gossip, in this context, also serves as a weapon, and one readily turned against Nirvah by those who resent her newfound political connections. Her sister-in-law, Arlette, comes to Nirvah with gossip about the reasons for their street being paved; the other women join in, crediting it to the “new mistress” of the secretary of state (128). Nirvah, quite rightly, perceives their gossip as “a frontal attack” (127) and promises herself that henceforth she will be far more guarded. “From today, I’m going to learn to say the opposite of what I think, and to build a screen around my life,” she thinks (127). Later, in a remarkable moment, Nirvah takes on Arlette’s gossip about her directly: “She tells everyone that I’m sleeping with a macoute in Daniel’s bed. Easy. For starters, Raoul has changed the bed and the bedroom furniture, at my request, and next, she’s never lifted a finger to get her brother out of that hellhole. It seems that her lover, the major, has gone into exile” (164). Nirvah here uses insinuations about Arlette’s own influential lover as a weapon of self-defense, while rebutting the specific content of Arlette’s gossip—that she’s having sex with Raoul in Daniel’s bed—by essentially bragging about one of the perks of her infidelity. One suspects that Arlette would not feel that Nirvah’s acquisition of new bedroom furniture diminishes the validity of her attack.
Despite claiming that she can fence herself off from gossip, Nirvah processes her guilt by collectivizing it—Port-au-Prince is “a city with two faces, a treacherous city,” she says (162)—and by imagining herself gossiping about a friend in a similar situation. “I would surely have called her cowardly, a gold-digger, and lots of other things too. It’s true that I’m cowardly,” she admits (154). In fact, gossiping about other women would be scant consolation, she reflects. “I don’t take any relief or satisfaction in knowing that others have a similar lot to mine,” she says. “This is about me. [ . . . ] It’s me who has to close my eyes, my skin, my ears to the condemnation of public opinion” (154–55). It is gossip that, as time passes, affirms Nirvah’s conflicted identity as a victim made dependent upon her victimizer. Her affair with Raoul is common knowledge, she realizes, and her social network has dramatically changed as a result. “The whole city knows it [ . . . ]. I’ve joined the club of macoute mistresses,” she thinks (162–63). “I leave behind me a trail of intoxicating perfume and swagger. The women who condemn me must surely fantasize about my relations with Raoul-the-Beast” (163). In imagining the jealousy of her former friends, Nirvah also seeks to shrug off her own responsibility, claiming a little too glibly that Daniel, in his “presumptuousness” and “thoughtlessness,” is responsible for the situation in which she now finds herself (164). This is a rehearsed self-justification, an attempt to construct her own image more favorably both to herself and to those who gossip against her. This stresses the degree to which Nirvah’s torment is grounded in shame and the fear of public judgment rather than in the specifics of her situation: if nobody knew or talked about Nirvah’s actions, the text suggests, her self-justification would go unchallenged, and her guilt would be far easier to bear.
Mars’s text returns to the image of the purged bedroom, as a metaphor for both Nirvah’s shame and her attempts to gloss over her transgressions, when Nirvah admits to quietly removing from the room everything that reminds her of her husband. In a moment of insight, she realizes that she is doing the government’s work by adjusting to her new life and removing any trace of her husband from her home: “I finally understood that for this government, forgetting is a tactic for getting rid of opponents” (168). The regime forces its opponents into mute, sphinxlike prisons as a way of avoiding the scandals that executions would spark, Nirvah reflects, but also as a way of making them the subjects of an inexorable amnesia. Detention, Nirvah suggests, is a process of zombification that breaks the will of the captive but also leads to him or her being forgotten and thus rendered powerless. This scrubbing away of even the memory of resistance recalls Nirvah’s repeated claim that her “sex is like fine china; it retains no trace of infamy; once I wash it, it’s like new” (155). Nirvah insists that if and when Daniel returns, she will be able to scrub away her infidelities and compromises. In the end, however, the only things scrubbed away are the traces of her absent husband: Nirvah’s claim that her innocence is retrievable, that her sins can be forgiven, is finally revealed as wishful thinking or downright self-deception.42
This is most clear when Nirvah burns Daniel’s books, and later his diaries, as a way of preventing them from falling into official hands but also of obliterating her husband’s continuing presence in her life. This act of destruction, of willful and irrevocable forgetting, is an attempt to redact her family’s narrative—a gesture that recalls the conflagration through which Gloria seeks to draw a line under the swirling narratives of Maldito amor, and also echoes Balaguer’s cynical attempt to substitute blank pages and silences for continuing discussion of his regime’s actions. Nirvah seeks not just to destroy the physical pages of Daniel’s diaries but also to cauterize the wound left by their memory: “This small notebook never existed; I didn’t read these words,” she insists (145). She justifies the decision as a way of erasing Daniel’s absence, or reclaiming for a moment the “insipid, predictable, marvelous” life they shared before his writing made him a target of the regime (145). But she cannot help but realize that she has also destroyed what little of her husband’s life and liberty still remained, and left him without voice or legacy. “Daniel’s story ends here,” she says. “These ashes make me a widow” (146). Where Díaz sees the regime papering over its own history, Mars delves into the complicity of Haitians in establishing and accepting silence: Nirvah silences Daniel as a way of coping with her pain and guilt, and of seeking to free her children from the memory of their father’s dissidence and detention. This is a resonant gesture that Mars manages to render as both transparently self-serving and emotionally relatable; in this episode, as elsewhere in Saisons sauvages, the reader is given both access to the protagonist’s tortured interior monologue and sufficient distance to view her claims with a degree of ironic detachment. The result is that the reader is invited at once to condemn Nirvah’s selfish actions, and to relate to her suffering and her lack of options.
Despite Nirvah’s insistence that she is fighting for her children, it is they who pay the highest price for her compromises—a significant plot detail in a text so explicitly engaged with the legacy of Duvalierism for subsequent generations. Nirvah first learns about her children’s plight from Maggy, her friend, who tells her people are saying “odd things” about her family. Nirvah claims to have “become numb to gossip” and resents Maggy’s efforts to “disturb the serenity of my Sunday afternoon with gossip” (185, 186). Maggy persists: “Even though my beauty salon is a hotspot for gossip, I always keep these stories at arm’s length. It doesn’t amuse me anymore to see these ladies smear each other with bile and shit, but this time . . . I think you should pay attention. It’s about your kids . . .” (186). Nirvah is alarmed, and Maggy finally explains: “They’re saying that . . . Raoul . . . abuses Marie and maybe even . . . Nicolas . . . in your house. [ . . . ] At least, that’s what I heard very clearly from the conversation of two clients who were getting manicures” (186). Nirvah dismisses the gossip as calumny: “Do you see how far Haitians’ perversity can go? Deep down, that’s what they would like. They’d like to see me destroyed,” she says. “That’s why they are attacking my children, the thing dearest to me. My God!” (187). Maggy tries to engage her friend in interpretive metagossip, noting that Raoul has a reputation as a sexual predator and plenty of opportunities to be alone with the children. Nirvah rejects her attempts at solidarity and collaborative analysis, instead diving into an almost jealous reverie about Raoul’s sexual possession of her, a thought that recalls her previous claim that her various enemies were simply envious of her new lover. Nirvah’s initial response, in fact, is outrage less at the rape of her children than at Raoul’s violation of their transactional arrangement and apparent disregard for the reputational sacrifices she has made. “I accepted the tarnishing of my reputation, the loss of close friends, becoming a renegade in the eyes of society,” Nirvah thinks. “Why does he also need to profane my children’s innocence?” (189).
With Maggy forgotten, Nirvah tries to make sense of what she has heard, swinging between rejecting the news and giving it credence. “These stories are just gossip, spitefulness, badmouthing, lies, dirty tricks, nothing more,” she thinks. “Who could know what takes place in my home? That information could only come from Raoul himself” (190). Still, she quickly realizes that Raoul’s penetration of her home has created the opportunity for gossip:
There’s also the hired help. Maybe Tinès, Auguste’s replacement? Raoul brought him in to keep the generator running, among other things. I knew that he wanted, above all, to have ears and eyes inside my home, to know the ins and outs, the visitors. I’ve acted like I didn’t get it. But you could expect nothing else from the Secretary of State for Defense and Public Safety, the chief of the government’s secret police. Tinès is quiet enough, he works and the house is clean, but he has a shifty look. Any leak must have come from him. Yva is devoted to me, I’m sure. The children themselves—would they let it slip . . . ? But what am I saying? It’s pointless to give credence to the spitefulness of sour people. Marie and Nicolas are fine. Raoul respects my children. (190–91)
In the end, however, Nirvah cannot bring herself to fully reject the gossip: overwhelmed, she vomits on the floor. Her emesis is a visceral reaction; like her involuntary urination after her first meeting with Raoul, it is a physical response more direct and honest, and certainly less conflicted, than her emotional one.
When Nirvah subsequently confronts Raoul, demanding to know the truth of the matter, he rages at her, using the accusation’s roots in gossip to cast it as inherently untrustworthy. “Don’t come crying to me today because some gossip reached you,” he warns (217).43 Nirvah insists, and he unleashes a torrent of obscene, contradictory stories: that he prostituted himself with men to gain power; that Nicolas is unappealing to him; that Marie is willing, unwilling, lascivious, innocent, inexperienced, or a better lover than Nirvah. With so many stories swirling around, Raoul suggests, the truth of the matter is unknowable and can only be a construction, a choice. “How could you not have seen a thing this huge happening here, right before your eyes? Or is it that there’s nothing to see?” he asks. “What’s your decision? To believe me, or not to? What is your truth?” (218). Nirvah is horrified but succumbs, telling herself: “He’s a master of the art of confusion. Maybe he no longer even knows what the word truth means” (218–19). I have traced the epistemological frailties of gossip in previous chapters; in this instance, however, the truth of the matter is well understood, at least by the reader. By the time Nirvah hears the gossip, Mars has already staged Raoul’s assault of Nicolas and Marie in grotesque detail, making the reader assume the role of the prying eyes Nirvah imagines impassively watching the abuse of her children. While Raoul seeks to obfuscate the truth by peppering Nirvah with alternative accounts of what has happened, the gossip that runs through Saisons sauvages is actually remarkably accurate: it records and circulates unspeakable horrors, yes, but the horrors themselves are real.
Despite Raoul’s efforts to convince Nirvah that “truth” is a meaningless abstraction, the family’s friends and neighbors have no doubts about the facts of the matter. When Marie becomes pregnant and tries to convince her boyfriend to support her, he resorts to gossip—“words that one shouldn’t say, that mark you like a branding iron,” Marie thinks (234)—to disavow responsibility for the pregnancy. “There were at least two of us shooting you full of sperm, darling Marie,” he says, continuing: “You’re screwing that macoute secretary of state, the so-called family friend. They say he’s also your mother’s lover. What a family you make!” (234). Marie, like her mother, seeks to use sex to gain some vestige of control over her own life; gossip, however, outpaces her, tripping up her attempts at self-assertion before they can begin.44
In fact, gossip is shown as tripping up virtually everyone in Saisons sauvages, without regard for their status in Duvalier’s Haiti. Raoul’s own downfall is brought about through gossip, with his affair with Nirvah, and even his assault on Marie, becoming known to his political rival, Maxime Douville, who bitterly refers to him as “the lover of Nirvah Leroy.” Dressing up his political rivalry in moral outrage, Douville continues: “People claim he’s even doing it with Leroy’s daughter. It’s too much! Raoul Vincent will pay dearly for this” (224). It is through gossip, along with some arm-twisting, that Douville convinces Duvalier’s ministers to recommend freeing Daniel, in a gambit intended to embarrass Raoul and force him to end his affair with Nirvah. In the event, however, Raoul miscalculates and urges Duvalier not to free Daniel. As Douville rightly perceives, Raoul’s motives are too transparent and dramatically diminish his standing. “They all knew the modesty of the chief of state, who in the heart of the national palace had kindled a passionate affair—in secret, he believed—with his private secretary, but who would certainly never condone such a flagrant sex scandal,” Douville asserts (226). Duvalier’s own indiscretions are scrutinized through gossip, Mars suggests, and even he is unwilling to jeopardize his reputation by helping Raoul to survive the scandal in which he is embroiled.
Raoul’s downfall comes about, in fact, because he misreads the degree to which gossip is eroding his political capital. Only too late does he realize the limits of his own relationship with Duvalier: “François Duvalier would not cut him loose, it was simply unthinkable. He, who had given his life and sold his soul for the revolution. But he also knew of the vicious gossip that his enemies were feeding the president. Duvalier wouldn’t touch him, but he would let his lackeys finish him off” (249). Raoul tries to limit the gossip: when his government slush fund dries up, he decides against taking a loan from one of his contacts because “the news would travel too fast” (249), and stops short of telling his wife because “she might panic, say too much, and do a lot of harm” (263). Still, Raoul’s political decline has already begun, and is mapped by his increasing conversion into a subject of gossip. Nirvah’s brother, Roger, advises her to flee the country, saying: “The Secretary of State . . . is in a bad place. [ . . . ] The rumors are gaining force” (259). Raoul’s wife perceives that he is in trouble; from her worried looks, he determines that the “rumor-mill must have appraised her of his setbacks” (263). Eventually, Raoul announces that he plans to seek asylum: “I’m sure that the rumors have reached you,” he tells Nirvah, who only replies, “ ‘Yes . . . they are talking about it’ ” (276). Finally, as they attempt to flee the country, Roger tells Nirvah that he has heard that Raoul was arrested, dressed as a woman, while trying to seek asylum at the Venezuelan ambassador’s home. As before, when gossip revealed Raoul’s abuse of her children, Nirvah’s first response is to laugh. “What a pitiful end for His Excellency” she reflects (293). Nirvah’s laughter is not of victory—within pages she herself has been apprehended—but signals, rather, a moment of clarity: she sees now that even the “Beast” who has toyed with and possessed her is ultimately ensnared in, and subject to, the same forces by which she herself has been afflicted. This is arguably the key to the gossip that saturates Mars’s text: gossip is simultaneously relied on and feared by everyone in Duvalier’s Haiti, becoming an allegory both of Haitians’ suffering and of the compromises so many Haitians were forced to make in order to survive.
With its unflinching account of Haitians’ complicity in their own suffering, Saisons sauvages is a significant literary response to the Duvalier era, and all the more so when considered against the silences and allegorizations that have typified prior Haitian literary engagement with the period. As Munro notes, “Mars’s work confirms that fiction is a highly potent means of revisiting the apocalyptic past, bringing it to life and working against the kind of forgetting that allows dictatorship and tyranny to exist” (Tropical Apocalypse 63). It is precisely against such forgetting that Mars writes. When Nirvah seeks to console Marie—and perhaps, in the process, herself—she offers not a reckoning or a restoration but rather a wiping clean of the slate: “We’ll leave these hostile years behind us. We’ll learn to forget, forget the land of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, Rue des Cigales, the macoutes, and everything that causes pain in our country” (233). This is the best future that Nirvah—and by extension, in Mars’s reading, many of the Haitians who lived through the Duvalier era—can envision: not rebirth or reconciliation but rather denial and the release that comes with amnesia. It is with this postauthoritarian ahistoricity, this lack of self-narrative—imposed, but also desired—that Mars’s text grapples: by tracing the ubiquity of gossip (and thus also of guilt and shame) she seeks to reconstruct the widespread complicity she perceives in the silences and compromises of the past. Unlike many other postdictatorship states, as Munro notes, Haiti has largely failed to grapple with the legacy of the Duvalier years in any formal or organized way. In such circumstances, Munro argues, novels such as Saisons sauvages “become means of testifying to individual and general suffering, and of keeping memories alive and thereby validating experiences that would otherwise never be spoken about” (64). This resurfacing of suppressed trauma, clearly, is among the chief aims of Mars’s novel, inspired, she claims, by “real facts,” and her text, with all its gossip, tells a family story intended to be taken as speaking to a more general national trauma. In so doing, the text stages the complicity and compromises—facilitating survival, but leaving so much unsaid and unsayable—that marked the nation’s decades of dictatorship.
This recalls Patricia A. Turner’s assertion that for African Americans, rumor is like scar tissue: a marker of past pain and betrayal but also of “historical ignorances” and suspicions born of unresolved trauma (220). In Caribbean nations marked by authoritarianism and state-sponsored violence, gossip plays a similar role. Crucially, though, as the texts examined in this chapter show, gossip is grounded in the specific and the personal: where rumor (in Turner’s reading) festers amid ignorance, gossip promises to repopulate the blank spaces of history with first- or secondhand accounts of suppressed events. This has a claim to be the most urgent, and perhaps most enduring, of gossip’s uses in the Caribbean: that it whispers into silent spaces, reinscribes memories where amnesia might otherwise prevail, and forces confrontations with the compromises and conveniently forgotten sins—the uncomfortable, unacknowledged realities—of the past. It is, after all, by acknowledging their conflicted pasts that the fractured, conquered, and colonized nations and peoples of the Caribbean are beginning to forge futures, and construct coherent identities, for themselves. The Haitian novelist Gary Victor writes that Mars, like Victor and a handful of others, belongs to a “generation of Haitian writers whose destiny is to bear a too-heavy past, to dissect a painful and incoherent present, to invent an already compromised future” (61). The challenges Victor describes are not uniquely Haitian: across the Caribbean, writers are wrestling with unresolved pasts, unstable presents, and uncertain futures. As this volume has shown, gossip—in its many forms, its many deployments, its many uses—has emerged as a singularly potent narrative form for those who have taken up the challenge of addressing these questions and writing for, and about, the contemporary Caribbean.