Facts and Mysteries

The novel as found document has a long history. The gothic novels that helped establish the horror genre—think Dracula, think Frankenstein—often take the form of found documents, of reconstructions of uncanny events pieced together from letters and diaries. More recent novels have updated this concept in inventive ways: Ryan Chapman’s Riots I Have Known takes the form of an online prison journal, and Sarah Hall’s dystopian novel Daughters of the North is made up of computer files, which may or may not have been tampered with.

Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s 2009 novel Human Matter, now appearing in an English translation from Eduardo Aparicio, offers another approach to the genre: It’s a fictional story organized around documents the author found in the real world. In the Author’s Note that closes the book, Rey Rosa describes his first visit to “the place known as La Isla,” the current home of the Historical Archive of the Guatemala National Police, where he went to research the disappearance of Guatemalan citizens—many of them political dissidents.

Had Rey Rosa written a nonfiction account of what he learned from the missing-persons files, it likely would have been gripping in its own right. Instead, Rey Rosa wrapped his real-life search in a fictionalized container, and the results are haunting and revelatory in ways that nonfiction couldn’t accomplish. Human Matter takes the form of a series of notebooks and sketchbooks by a man who has, like the author, been visiting the National Police’s archive. These notebooks, full of facts and mysteries about the missing, increasingly veer into the narrator’s disquieting musings on the society around him, which he believes hasn’t purged itself of its historical demons as much as let them hide in plain sight. “Paranoid” doesn’t quite work as a description there—after all, are you paranoid if there’s significant evidence that power structures are indeed conspiring against you?

Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s fiction spans a wide stylistic range. His earliest translations into English came via Paul Bowles, who is referenced briefly in Human Matter. Some of Rey Rosa’s fiction, like Bowles’s, concerns itself with expatriates living far from home. Even when that’s not front and center in his work—as in Severina, a short novel about a bookseller who becomes obsessed with a woman who regularly shoplifts from his store—he still keeps questions of how nationalities play into identity, and how they can shift depending on the mood of the beholder, in the mix.

In Chaos: A Fable, released earlier this year, Rey Rosa explored Islamophobia, technological advances, Americanism, and the ways that science and faith can influence one another. It’s arguably the most engaged with the contemporary world of all of Rey Rosa’s novels to be translated into English; even as it ventures into speculative fiction, the novel grapples with resonant questions of nationality, and of finding oneself occupying a liminal space between the place you came from and the place you believe is your home.

Rey Rosa is particularly interested in his characters’ complicated relationship to place, to community. His novel The Good Cripple, about a kidnapping and its aftermath, quietly and deliberately uncovers the crime at its center, gradually giving a larger and larger sense of the societal schisms that influenced all of its characters. Human Matter likewise slowly reveals a complicated system of injustices—only here, the crimes are much more numerous, and the questions of guilt are much more complex.

Before Human Matter begins, Rey Rosa offers a snippet of text: “Though it may not seem to be, though it may not want to seem to be, this is a work of fiction.” Here, then, is the first establishment of a boundary between truth and fiction—and the first blurring of such a boundary. It won’t be the last. From there, the novel’s narrator details how a trove of papers related to the Guatemala National Police (disbanded in 1996) happened to be found.

Soon enough, we learn that our narrator has developed a deep and abiding interest in these documents: “I began to frequent the Archive as a kind of entertainment, and as I usually do when I have nothing to write, nothing really to say, during those days I filled a series of notebooks, sketchbooks, and loose sheets with simple impressions and observations.” Here, too, Rey Rosa establishes the structure of the book we’re about to read. He also makes clear the narrator’s interest in this material, calling his readings in the archive “something that could even be turned into a novel.” Cue the ominous music and the old sayings about the best intentions.

A recent interview with an American expert on Guatemala’s National Police provides some context for their actions, and why they no longer exist. Asked about the National Police’s purpose, Kay Doyle of Washington, DC’s National Security Archive remarked:

“They served as an instrument for the Guatemalan army for hunting down people they suspected to be either armed guerrillas or militants or subversives or leftists or people who they just didn’t like, who thought a different way or talked a different way or imagined a different Guatemala.”

It’s into this legacy that Rey Rosa’s narrator has begun to tread. And like the protagonist of Giorgio De Maria’s recently translated novel The Twenty Days of Turin, he soon learns that digging into a history of repression and violence can bring repression and violence to the surface.

Early in Human Matter, the narrator lists people detained for various offenses. As his research accrues, he begins to note how atrocities of the past continue to emerge in the present. Late in the novel, the narrator learns that his contact at the Archive Recovery Project has an intimate history with some of the events documented there. “I feel a little naive, a little dumb,” the narrator writes. What makes it novelistic is the gulf between the narrator’s occasional detachment and the menacing forces gathering in the background. As readers, we know what governmental stalling looks like, and while the narrator’s frustration with the restrictions on his access to the Archive is present, it takes him a while to be worried about what that delay might be a prelude to. For readers, it’s akin to watching a scene in a horror movie where someone approaches a door in a creepy house: We shout at them not to open it, but they turn the doorknob anyway.

“In a way, reviewing history is dealing with the dead,” the narrator notes at one point. That might be a thesis for this book, with all of its implications. One section detailing research into a set of fingerprints is so disturbing that it nearly catapults the whole novel into horror territory. Here, history blurs moral boundaries, and it can be difficult to distinguish the admirable from the awful. Nearly everyone in the book is implicated to some extent.At one point, the narrator discusses the implications of his family’s heritage: “We have some Maya in us, but our names are European, and we have Italian blood on our father's side. But we are also descendants of the conquistadors. We are also the bad guys!”

Roughly a quarter of the way into the novel, the narrator receives a call in which he is informed that his access to the archive has been suspended. It’ll be resolved quickly, he’s told; it’s a matter that should take only a few days to get straightened out. It should come as little surprise to learn that the matter is not resolved quickly. Nor is it surprising when the narrator begins to get the impression that he’s under surveillance.

For many American readers, Human Matter may resonate in a number of potentially contradictory ways. The involvement of the American government, and of American corporations, in Guatemalan affairs in the twentieth century is deeply felt here. That extends to the records at the heart of the book: Early on, the narrator observes that the Henry Classification System for filing fingerprints “was imposed by the US Embassy—so that American investigators could interpret the records without difficulty.”

Contemporary events have also caused Human Matterto take on newfound relevance. In June, The Intercept published an articlewith the relatively self-explanatory headline “A Vast Archive Exposed The Secret History Of Kidnapping And Assassination In Guatemala. Now It’s Under Threat.” The timing of the publication of this translation of Rey Rosa’s novel acquires an ominous dimension with this information—a new postscript also includes details about this controversy. But like the ways in which the author weaves together fact and fiction, it never feels like a demonstration of literary cleverness as much as the gradually suffocating sensation of moral rot, a terrifying post-script to a novel already terrifying in its implications.

Tobias Carroll is the author of the novel Reel (Rare Bird, 2016). His nonfiction book Political Signs, part of the Object Lesson series, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2020.