Gabo, Cacho and Art
This is one of the more difficult situations I’ve come across in a while — not because of its challenging subject matter, or its prominence, but because I admire one of the protagonists very much. And that’s the protagonist I can’t bring myself to entirely side with.
Essentially, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 2004 novella “Memoria de mis putas tristes,” roughly translated as “Memories of my Melancholy Whores” (promising title, right?) was, like the more famous “Love in the Time of Cholera,” going to receive the silver-screen treatment. This elicited considerable controversy from activists across Latin America, and as per the Post, “a human rights organization called the Regional Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Girls in Latin America and the Caribbean filed a criminal complaint with the Mexican attorney general last week, asserting that the filmmakers would be ‘responsible for acts that could be constituted as the crime of condoning child prostitution.’ ” So the government of the state of Puebla revoked the $1.5 million in taxpayer money that had previously constituted 25 percent of the film’s budget; the film has been postponed until further funds can be scrounged up. Since that move, Mexico City’s media has been rocked by the controversy, with well-known intellectuals publicly voicing their support for either side of the debate.
One of those intellectuals is the amazing Lydia Cacho, a world-renowned feminist activist primarily known for her work against the sexual abuse of women and children; she vocally opposes the film’s production, saying that “[her opposition to the film] is not about censorship or prudishness, but about the need of an in-depth debate about the ideological support for child exploitation.”
I agree completely. Which is why I think that legally forcing the termination of the film’s production is a terrible idea.
And that’s hard for me to say, because in any given debate, I don’t want to side against Lydia Cacho. I certainly don’t want to side against her by going with Gabo. It must be noted here that I am one of the few people I know who wholeheartedly dislikes most of his work, particularly the vastly overrated, unremittingly prurient, seemingly substance-less “Cholera;” I also think that his novels are among the most (consciously or unconsciously) sexist I’ve ever read, and it shocks me how infrequently this comes up in critical evaluations. Simply put, Gabo unfailingly characterizes his women as either hardbitten matrons or lush, dewy-eyed virgins, all of them happy to sexually pleasure male protagonists at a moment’s notice. He is too willing to treat them as faceless entries on a list — in the case of at least two novels, they literally become sexual-conquest statistics — and far too willing to whitewash rape or present it as an act of love. Finally, perhaps most disturbingly, many-if-not-most of his novels come close to lionizing pedophilia; there is barely a male hero in Gabo’s work that has not, at some point, sexually pursued a prepubescent girl. And it’s not presented in the gritty, morally ambiguous sense of “Lolita” — rather, it is romanticized, honored, shown with cascades of rose petals like a Harlequin paperback by way of Roman Polanski. (“Memoria de mis putas tristes” is a prime example: the book concerns a 90-year-old man who “gives himself the gift” of sex with a 14-year-old virgin, drugged until completely unconscious.) Lydia Cacho’s objections are well-founded. This is not, in an era plagued with human trafficking and sexual abuse, the sort of thing we’d like to see circulated, much less praised as art. Certainly, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of taxpayer funds being directed towards the production of the film — especially when granted by a governor who attempted to protect a known child abuser.
But it seems to me that, while concerns about the movie are absolutely well-founded, I’m not sure that legally banning it is the best path to take. The most obvious, and perhaps most dangerous, reason is this: that it will attract more attention, and the wrong kind of attention, to the book. Were all that attention coming from legitimately curious readers, I would have no problem with that; in fact, I’d be excited about the possibility of a greater discussion about Marquez’s work and the disturbing undercurrents therein. But if a work is famously banned as child pornography, it will increase its appeal to readers in search of titillation — titillation that, if you’re already in search of it, Gabo’s books can provide, with a handy helping of moral exoneration to go with. Nabokov was good enough to make “Lolita” ambiguous and ugly, unappealing enough to mostly negate the effect of readers in search of a cheap sexual thrill; “Memoria” and “Cholera” are not solely pornography but their truly distressing possibilities lie in their not-so-quiet okaying of pedophilia. And not just quiet pedophilia limited to the realm of fantasy, but exploitations, manipulations, abuses, rapes, all romanticized past recognition until they seem desirable. If the film goes forth, both book and film will be inconsequential, and when either comes up it will be primarily as a subject of discussion. If it does not go forth, the book will become forbidden fruit, elevated to pornographic heights and singled out by the very readers on whom Cacho fears its effect.
The other reason, of course, is a precedent of censorship. I believe, of course, that child pornography should be banned. But, though it might have that effect on readers who seek it out for sexual purposes, none of Gabo’s work can be placed under a conventional definition of pornography; certainly, however overrated his talents, his novels have enough “literary or artistic merit” to escape such a classification. Legally, much as we may wish it, we cannot ban these books for their themes, nor should we. Art can be disturbing, and not always purposefully. Likewise, art can be sexist, racist, repugnant, and not always purposefully. Art, as much faith as we hope to put in it, can be wrong. But can we ban Marquez, or Rand, or Hemingway — or, hell, Margaret Mitchell — for themes that are repulsive, or themes that could have a pernicious effect? It seems a societal slippery slope, and an undesirable one. In part, I dislike the idea because it would give Marquez’s sleazier defenders ammunition, attention and support with cries of undue censorship; in part, I dislike it because to ban media without circulating it would be to eliminate any factual basis for genuine discussion, for shades of gray if you will. Allowing the film to go through will do far less damage than banning it would (and, incidentally, is based on the fundamentally wrongheaded and vaguely condescending assumption that more people would make the effort to watch a mediocre, uncontroversial, inconspicuous movie on TV than to read a short, un-esoteric book around which controversies and accusations of child pornography swirl) — and might even, if handled with the expertise that Cacho and other prominent defenders of human rights have demonstrated, give way to an intelligent, meaningful reevaluation of Gabo and the mores that pervade his work.