Desperate Measures, Layered Truths

Article excerpt

Autobiographical accounts such as Rigoberta Menchu's Crossing Borders have a wide readership, whether because of the fame of the subject, the compelling nature of the story or the eloquence with which the protagonist's account is told. The very best autobiographical literature, of course, embodies ali of these elements. Rigoberta Menchu's first book, I,...Rigoberta Menchu, written before the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner became an internationally known figure, achieved its fame based on its stunning first-person account of the poverty, violence and racism experienced by the indigenous peoples of Guatemala. Her second book is unlikely to stir the controversy generated by her first and is, unfortunately, disappointing. Crossing Borders is not a compelling story, nor is it compellingly told. Only the fact that a Nobel laureate is telling it provokes interest.

Crossing Borders, published in 1998, is a continuance of Rigoberta Menchu's life story, covering the 15 years intervening since I,...Rigoberta Menchu was first published in 1983. During this period, the author went into exile in Mexico and reached the high point of her career as an activist by winning the Nobel Peace Prize. She got married and adopted a child. Political harassment continued to plague her, reaching into her innermost family life. Yet, despite these significant events, Crossing Borders has none of the immediacy of I,...Rigoberta Menchu. It fails to provide the sort of personal reflection that would allow readers to understand the thinking of this century's most important indigenous leader.

Menchu writes straightforwardly, but without the depth one would expect from someone with her accomplishments and life experiences. She is most insightful when describing the complexities of fame, but less so when discussing other, more abstract issues. For example, the concept of "crossing borders"--moving across cultural, political and national frontiers--promises to be a useful framework for Menchu's discussion of her life as an international activist. Yet, in Crossing Borders the concept seems to be taken quite literally, as the author describes several incidents in which she experienced difficulties crossing international boundaries. In these passages, as in others, Menchu presents herself as a victim--an inappropriate stance for someone of her international stature and political importance.

Crossing Borders is a potentially significant book, because it gives the author a chance to tell her story directly. In contrast, I,...Rigoberta Menchu was an "as-told-to" testimonial in which Venezuelan anthropologist Elizabeth Burgos interviewed Menchu and edited the resulting text. Crossing Borders may be more authentic, but it is not necessarily a more analytical, accessible or contextually richer account. While the author's own limitations as a self-reflective writer restrict the book's usefulness, the life story of the world's leading spokeswoman for indigenous peoples deserves a much more careful presentation than it gels here. Perhaps Menchu's advisors, and certainly her editors, are at fault for doing her a disservice in the production of this book.

Crossing Borders was first published in Spanish as Rigoberta: La nieta de los mayas. The English and the Spanish versions are quite different; the latter is more than 100 pages longer, and is undeniably better. Absent from Crossing Borders are prefaces by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano (who recently won the Lannan Foundation's Cultural Freedom Award) and the head of the Spanish section of Amnesty International, Esteban Beltran. Also omitted are a prologue by Italian writer Gianni Mina and an especially lyrical introduction by Maya Quiche poet Humberto Ak'abal. The essays by these writers provide a rich context for Menchu's story. The Spanish version includes the author's own acknowledgments and the text of the Guatemalan peace accords--both important in understanding her story--as well as 16 pages of photographs that visually enrich the text. …