Book Review - Cruel Modernity

In this important and deeply unsettling study, Jean Franco explores human cruelty in its many forms and, specifically, its manifestation in Latin America. She examines the intersection between modernity and cruelty, its representation in contemporary films, artworks and novels and the “memory traces” found in testimonies and photographs.

Franco suggests that it was “the lure of modernity” that led certain regimes to torture and kill, and condemns the United States for supporting the Southern Cone’s dirty wars because of its own paranoia about communism. Race hate is a central theme in Cruel Modernity and Franco describes how, during the massacre of Haitians in the Dominican Republic in 1937, victims were identified by their use of the guttural r when pronouncing such innocuous words as perejil (parsley). In the 1980s, governments in Peru and Guatemala targeted the indigenous as “alien to modernity”, while the acts of cannibalism practised by members of the Guatemalan army were, Franco suggests, propelled by “a desire for the end of ethnicity”.

Many of the atrocities described here were carried out by specially trained army recruits. Franco illustrates how victims had first to be dehumanized in the attackers’ eyes in order for barbaric acts of “extreme masculinity” to be justified. Rape during war time is well documented but Franco underlines how the brutalization of women’s bodies after death, the slaughter of children and the extraction of foetuses from mothers’ wombs was thought to complete the annihilation of an enemy.

Wars may end but cruel acts continue to be perpetrated by criminal groups. After the peace accords, the Kaibiles, Guatemala’s special operations force, renowned for their savagery, were recruited as hit men by Los Zetos, a Mexican drug cartel which displays dismembered bodies as a message to rival gangs.

A penultimate chapter is dedicated to the femicides still committed with impunity in Ciudad Ju├írez, Mexico. Most of the women are tortured and raped before being killed, their bodies dumped in the desert. When the murders first began to be reported, the authorities were openly discriminatory in their public statements. Many believe that Mexico’s misogynistic culture has contributed to the wall of silence surrounding the murders.

Impeccably researched and provocative in tone, Cruel Modernity is a significant addition to contemporary discourses on the brutality of totalitarian states and criminal gangs. Only by better understanding what leads individuals and governments to practise extreme cruelty can we hope to deter future atrocities.

Originally published in the TLS