16 October 2008
Rodrigo Rey Rosa's The Pelcari Project (1991; trans. Bowles, 1991)
Published in 1991, The Pelcari Project is a novella by Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa which is translated by Paul Bowles. It concerns a state that takes its (probably mainly politically dissident) prisoners from death row and, via sophisticated brain surgery, turns them into happy work slaves in the forest.
Most of the story, though, emerges from one of the prisoners – we’ll call him Yu(1) as 'Yu' is the only sound he can make because they’ve all had their tongues cut out – who finds a notebook and pencil and discovers that, in spite of total long- and partial short-term memory loss, he can still write a diary containing highly intelligent thoughts. He slowly begins to make sense of his world through his pencil.
After the work day, the slaves are chained to a tree for the night, although Yu(1) manages to escape unseen up into the branches of his tree and is replaced by a new slave – Yu(2), let’s say. The two strike up a clandestine friendship in so far as that’s possible; Yu(2) can also write, and he too is struggling to understand what has happened to him.
The Pelcari Project is concerned with the relationship between language and thought. The surgeon’s (now way out-of-date) computer tells us that the story is fairly contemporary, and although there’s no specific mention of place, it’s not too difficult to understand that writing is a metaphor for resistance against an oppressive government, and that Rey Rosa has Guatemala in mind.