American Labasha

By Alarcón, Daniel | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

American Labasha


Alarcón, Daniel, The Virginia Quarterly Review


"Everyone in Paraguay has the same fingerprints. There are crimes but people chosen at random are punished for them. Everyone is liable for everything."

-Donald Barthelme, "Paraguay"

While I was researching my first novel, I came across a passage in Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Emperor that I've never quite been able to shake. In it, he describes Haile Selassie's attempts to modernize Ethiopia in the years immediately preceding the fall of his government. In the more distant and isolated provinces of the empire, there was, according to one of Kapuscinski's informants, an antique ritual called labasha that took the place of a criminal justice system. It worked this way: a community is confronted with a crime-a theft, for example-and instead of making any attempt to discover who is responsible, the people of the village select a child, usually a boy, and stupefy him with a potent herbal tea. Under the herb's hallucinogenic effects, the drunk child stumbles about, and eventually, based on signifiers only the boy in his altered state can know-the color of a woman's dress, a man's posture or the geometric pattern of his shirt-he identifies the culprit. No further proof of guilt is necessary. This person, whoever they are, is then punished according to whatever crime they have now been convicted of.

In the case of theft, his or her hands and legs are amputated.

Naturally, this strikes those of modern sensibilities as particularly cruel, as deplorable and essentially unjust. And it is all those things-to punish people at random for crimes they have not committed certainly offends our notions of right and wrong. We like to believe that power is not arbitrary, and indeed, in the best of times, under the best circumstances, it may not be. But as this passage lingered, and eventually insinuated itself into the novel I was writing, I decided it would be a mistake to think of labasha as foreign or strange. If anything, it is simply a corrupt version of something we see all too often: in many ways, in many states, punishment is random. And the more complex and troubled the political situation, the more random it becomes.

At the time I came across labasha, I was well versed in the routine horrors of a state that had lost control of itself. The novel I was writing dealt specifically with the civil war and its aftermath in Peru, the country where I was born. In response to the violent attacks of the Shining Path, a Maoist insurgency, the Peruvian state launched a campaign of wanton violence upon the poor, indigenous, rural majority-the same people who were most victimized by the Shining Path in the first place. Thousands were imprisoned without trial, or tortured, and, of course, thousands more were disappeared, never to be heard from again. In writing the novel, I alternately immersed myself in this shameful history, recoiled from it, and tried above all to understand how a society could sanction this arbitrary implementation of power, and then, at the first convenient opportunity, forget that it had done so.

The refrain one hears most often from certain sectors of a besieged society is that the political reality demands compromise: we shoulder barter away our freedoms in exchange for the promise of security. How many societies have made these bargains? It is hardly exotic. And so: when suspects are selected for questioning and punishment based on outward signifiers-their age, their ethnic group, their country of origin, their religion, their occupation-rather than complicity with any crime, this, too, is labasha.

When I was growing up in the United States, Peru seemed like a rumor, or a dream, and my family's periodic trips back home only served to accentuate the strangeness of the place. If the US was solid, Peru was still under construction, a place where rules were more obscure, where power felt no need to mask its essentially arbitrary nature. Bribes occurred in broad daylight. Politicians routinely performed gestures of corruption so baroque one could only marvel at them. …

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