Social standards are a reality for people in many different parts of the world. Society has created ideas of beauty and possibilities by manipulating our understanding of a physical body. My paper uses the theory of posthumanism to break down the social norms addressed in Los Años Marchitos. Though the story takes place in and is written by a Guatemalan author, Rafael Menjivar Ochoa writes about the issues that still lie beneath today’s social norms worldwide. Posthumanism, as discussed within this context is the pondering of a life outside of a typical human one. This explores the idea of becoming other through mentally removing one's self from constrictions of our physical appearances. I will analyze Los Años Marchitos and argue that society has conditioned us to focus on outward appearances; therefore, contesting the fact that life within a physical body holds us back from imagining alternate possibilities.
Absence of the body: the possibility of an alternate reality in los aÑos marchitos
By Kimberly Arenas
Western culture and modern day materialism has encouraged many people to cringe at the idea of death, placing concern upon their earthly possessions and missing the beauty that lies beyond it. Scholars refer to the study of death and its allure as posthumanism, meaning the life that comes after being human. Taking posthumanism theory, one can see this beauty as crossing the boundaries of labels associated in life and exceeding the heights of the everyday post-death; thus, a person can then "live" a new life after death. These theories are particularly insightful in the interpretation of many literary texts of the Central American region, such as in Los Años Marchitos by Rafael Menjívar Ochoa. Ochoa tells the bizarre story of a Guatemalan radio-theatre actor. As the story unfolds, we are made aware of the protagonist and his economic situation, which quickly pushes him to naively accept a job offer that uses his vocal talent for a not-so-conventional purpose. Throughout the text, readers repeatedly come across death, both tragic and brutal, opening up a space for an array of odds and realities. This finally leads to the concept of death as an instant disconnect between our innermost being and our physical bodies. I will analyze Los Años Marchitos and argue that society has conditioned us to focus on outward appearances; therefore, contesting the fact that life within a physical body holds us back from imagining alternate possibilities.
The first occasion in the story in which we witness death is when Guadalupe Frejas, the protagonist's colleague, dies from an asthma attack. Before her death, the protagonist, which by this point we realize has no name, describes her as an obese glutinous woman and at some point even calls her pathetic while watching her walk away. This all seems ironic simply because before her death in chapter two, as well as after her death, the protagonists remembers small details of Frejas and what she would do and how much he loved her. The fact that Frejas died and was no longer physically present made it easier for the protagonist to be open about his feelings towards her. Frejas’ death open up the possibility of becoming who the protagonist wanted her to be without a physical body to limit his imagination. Later in the story, when asked about Frejas, the protagonist begins making nice comments about her, but due to her large physical appearance feels the need to blurt out her flaws and says: “she weighed over 120 kilos, I said in attempt to soften the lie, but that turned out worst: I felt like a traitor” (Ochoa 91). This leads to the irony in relation to Frejas’ character in the public spectrum as we notice how much people love her as a radio actress. Frejas is practically a celebrity yet no one knows what she physically looks like. In response to finding out her weight, the woman speaking to the protagonist replies “Really? I would have never imagined with that voice!” (Ochoa 91). This exemplifies how shallow society is and how outward appearance can tarnish the reputation of an individual. Through analyzing this, we conclude that Frejas had a physical body, which did not meet the norms of society, ultimately causing her to be looked down upon in disgust as an outcast. It was as if her physical body not only kept her from being a normal contributor to society, but also kept the protagonist from pursuing her. After being intimate with another woman, the protagonist confesses to have forgotten about Frejas for two days, yet realizes he was then missing her more than ever. As the protagonist remembers her death, he begins to feel guilty and realizes he had forgotten her because of this new woman he was with. This brings great guilt to him and causes a longing for Frejas who he can no longer fulfill due to her death. Rosi Braidotti in “The Post-human” writes a great theoretical analysis of death as a possibility. Braidotti claims that death is more beautiful than painted to be by society, “Death is the inhuman conceptual excess: the unrepresentable, the unthinkable and the unproductive black hole that we all fear. Yet death is also a creative synthesis of flows, energies and perpetual becoming...Because humans are mortal, death, or the transience of life, is written at our core: it is the event that structures our time-lines and frames our time-zones, not as a limit, but as a porous threshold,” (Braidotti 131). Braidotti reassures us that death--the absence of a physical form--though dreaded by many, is really an opportunity to continue living. In this instance, though Guadalupe Frejas was no longer living, her death allowed the protagonist to explore the possibilities of the beautiful relationship he secretly pined for.
Braidotti reassures us that death—the absence of a physical form—though dreaded by many, is really an opportunity to continue living.
The next moment in which we witness death is through the discovery of what the protagonist has been assigned to do. After being shut down as an actor because of his looks, he is mysteriously hired by a supposed police unit to study out pictures and facts about strangers and create a voice and persona for them. In one instance, while presenting his recorded work to his boss, who is highly impressed, he explains his process of becoming the character, “His nose is small, I said, someone with a small nose is prone to nasalize. Look at these photos: his mouth is never completely shut, it could be because he is unable to breath right,”(Ochoa 82). Death here, though not literal is still being taking part in a metaphorically physical sense. The protagonist dies to his own physical appearance, taking up the physical appearance of another man in order to imagine and successfully become a new person. Another interesting moment where we see him fully become someone else, is when he is so deep into character that he refers to the man he is playing as a person of it’s own, “The trigueño made my body move uncomfortably over the chair, he was about to get up and leave me there like an idiot not knowing what to answer,” (Ochoa 118). Furthermore, this relates to the theoretical work by Karen Barad entitled Posthumanist Performativity, and in her work, Barad discusses the metaphysical aspect of matter and says, “Caught once again looking at mirrors, it is either the face of transcendence or our own image. It is as if there are no alternate ways to conceptualize matter. The only options seem to be the naiveté of empiricism or the same old narcissistic bedtime stories,” (Barad). This analysis demonstrates Barad’s disapproval to societies common idea of a body. The study of metaphysics and its importance in literature helps us understand Barad’s philosophy. Metaphysical literature like this shows us how to think of the body as something other than what we typically see it as. The metaphysical way of thinking helps us better analyze our existence and understand how we could continue to become more that just a human body as time progresses in our lives. Society teaches us that our outward appearance represents who we are, but Barad uses philosophy to disprove it and calls us to explore the idea of transcendence. Transcendence plays the biggest roll in the analysis of the characters in Los Años Marchitos and helps further understand why death is such an essential factor in the story.
Death can be a celebrated success. While talking about the death of a famous singer, the protagonist makes an interesting comment saying, “That time Javier Solis won. He was lucky to have died a couple of days before. That was the actual luck,” (Ochoa 58). Though the reader can see this as a simple opinion given the protagonist, analyzing the phrase almost translates to Ochoa himself making a statement about death and it’s greatness. The author is attempting to get his positive views about death across to the reader by speaking through the protagonist. Once again mentioning Braidotti, we see the relation of the text to the theorist's’ perspective on death when she says, “One’s view of death depends one’s assumptions about life,” (Braidotti 131).
Finally, the last way in which we see death open up an opportunity for possibilities is when we figure out that the special police unit who has hired the protagonist, using the power of his voice, is creating a whole new reality based on the lives of people who are no longer living. During a meeting with his mysterious boss, the protagonist is given an explanation as to why his voice is so essential to their job, “We have ummm also found...uhh yes found, documents that clear up many things in relation to the history of the country, that did not exist before, or better yet, no one ever had the insight to find,” (Ochoa 80). The police unit is essentially discussing their role in the fabrication of false public information. In the case of the protagonist, he has been assigned to give multiple testimonies while playing different people and recording them. We realize the protagonist's disgust towards the police as he says, “She worked for the police, a police that that would soon murder a man, if they had not already done so, but she talked about her daughter with such honesty that could make your stomach turn. She smiled just like them,” (Ochoa 104). Here the protagonist realizes that the police is using his talents to justify the murder of people. Once again, death is discussed, this time in a very cold sense yet it shows how the death of individuals allows the police to create alternate realities in the world around them. Stories are being fabricated and through the physical absence of people, their lives can be manipulated and new identities are created in order to be whatever the police want it to be. Ricardo Roque Baldovino analyzes the ability to create an identity based on fiction in his work entitled El Derecho A La Ficcion. Roque Baldovino states, “The nation is a result of stories that circulate in society and are transported through distinct mediums and divers constellations of significance: political ideologies, official discourse, publicity, daily conversations, history, and in a much less visible form, art practices,”(Baldovino 151). Baldovino here gives an insight to what the police in the story are doing and relates it to what actually happens in modern society. Baldovino’s analysis shows that the police is able to use the absence of these people as a form of their own creation of reality, stories are now created and history is made. Baldovino also helps us understand that though many fear death, it can lead to the creation of an identity and in this case even the identity of a nation trying to hide truth behind murder and lies.
Though the concept of posthumanism is a big part of our lives it is often overlooked. Posthumanism is best understood as life after what we currently understand is human life. Some understand this as death but it could also bee seen as becoming other without the limitations of a physical body. In modern society and in the thriving age of the internet we see individuals practicing posthumanism through social media. On social media, people are capable of creating their appearances and alternating their reality as perceived by others. Before the internet, becoming other was analyzed in literary texts through acting and death. Menjivar Ocha uses Los Años Marchitos to address issues in society in relation to labels, body consciousness and death. Typically, death would be seen as a misfortune, Menjivar Ocha uses death in his story, as a way of addressing posthumanism and escaping the norms of society. Ochoa subtly proves how living beyond the limitations of our physical body gives us the ability to reach our full potentials as individuals.
Barad, Karen. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Vol. 28, no. 3, 2003, pp. 801–831.
Braidotti, Rosi. “The Posthuman.” Polity Press. 2013
Ochoa, Rafael Menjivar. “Los Años Marchitos: Coleccion Séptimo dia.” Editorial Universitaria Centroamericana, 1991.
Roque Baldovinos, Ricardo. "El derecho a la ficción". Niños de un planeta extraño. San Salvador: Editorial Universidad Don Bosco, 2012. 151-155.