By Michelle Pacheco
El Tiempo Principia en Xibalba is a novel written by Kakchiquel author Luis De Lion and published posthumously in 1985 after winning Guatemala’s literary award the Juegos Florales de Quetzaltenango. The novel focuses on a small town in Guatemala and the crisis caused by the return of Pascual, a young man who left to join the military. He shows disdain for his hometown and their “indigenous” ways while yearning for La Virgen de Concepcion, the statue of a Virgen who holds importance in the town and their church. Within the town also resides a prostitute, Concha, who is nicknamed La Virgen de Concepcion as she bears a striking resemblance to the statue in the church, and the man she eventually marries Juan Caca, the rich man who lives in a white house and is well regarded in the community.
I argue that within the novel the author Luis De Lion uses references to the Popol Vuh in order to maintain indigenous identity among his characters despite the heavily Catholic and colonial influence on the small town in which the story is taking place.. De Lion uses a concept of time and language related to his own indigenous identity in his book in order to reify indigeneity in Guatemalan/Central American literature as this book is the only book read in this class that focuses solely on indigenous people.
Language use in El Tiempo Principia En Xibalba
It is important to look at the language in this book as it is a result of colonialism because the book is written in Spanish rather than in Kakchiquel or Quiché. Through the use of Guatemalan Spanish, De Lion has created a connection to the indigenous cultures in Guatemala that have influenced the way Spanish is spoken in the country. It is no longer the Castilian brought to Central America by the Spanish colonizers but a language that has been syncretized with the language of the indigenous populations. Language usage has been considered a determining factor in identity and which group a person identifies with the most. There has been debate over the Maya influence on Guatemalan Spanish. Kenneth Yabes argues that the erasure of Maya influence on Guatemala Spanish stems from Guatemala ladinos not wanting to admit that their Spanish has been “indigenized” and that “they speak like indios” Yabes links the linguistic inferiority to the prevalent racial issues in Guatemala and the fear of being “othered” through the indigenous heritage in their Spanish. In the novel, De Lion uses a common dialect that is known within all socioeconomic stratas in Guatemala, it is an “illegitimate language” that ladinos try not to acknowledge. De Lion purposely makes use of Guatemalan Spanish to force ladinos to face “la lengua mestiza”
Even in his pseudonym De Lion uses a characteristic phonological shift that is used in Guatemalan Spanish. Luis De Lion is a play on the author's full name, Jose Luis De Lion Diaz, and the shift breaks the [e] + vowel hiatus making Leon [Le.on] as [ljon] just as pelear [pe.le.ar] would be pronounced [pel.jar]. Nathan Henne points out that the use of “principia” in the title of the novel is an archaic verb that is no longer used in the modern Spanish speaking world but it is not considered archaic in the Guatemalan villages where it is used more than the preferred “comenzar” that is used in Spanish. By using “principia”, a speaker would be identified as indigenous and has an alienating effect in cities. Henne states that “right from the front cover, El Tiempo Principia En Xibalba, purposely confronts its reader with the persistence of indigenous poetics in the absence of indigenous language”.
Within the novel De Lion continues to use aspects of Guatemalan Spanish such as using “nana” in the sentence “”O llegar acompañado de tu nana - o tu madre, segun como vos la llames.” There is a distinction between the indigenous use of nana over the use of madre which is used to mark differing ties to the indigenous culture or the Ladino and to the particular women that is being addressed. Henne points out that “nana” doesn’t just mean mom because in Kiche “nan” is used to refer in a respectful manner to any woman in the village. Later on, in the novel De Lion uses nanita, the diminutive of nana, when referring to the midwife, Senora Chus, who all the kids she helped deliver would say “good morning nanita; good afternoon nanita, good evening nanita.” It is interesting to note that Pascual, during a conversation with Juan (page 50), refers to his mother as “madre” as a way to make himself more Ladino.
Another marker of Guatemalan Spanish used in the novel is the use of “vos” which is the most informal of the three second person singular voices (Usted, tu, vos). The use of voseo reflects a paradoxical relationship between the conservative indigenous cultures and the pervasiveness of “vos” and it shows a shift in voice within the novel and shows a closeness with in the relationship of the characters who are speaking.
References to the Popol Vuh and Creating Indigenous Identity
The title of the book comes up again in regard to the indigenous identity of the novel besides the archaic use of “principia”, the title also references Xibalba. The novel is influenced with symbolism from the Popol Vuh and is even mentioned with in the novel as “that strange book” (un libro raro) named the Popol Vuh which was just as distant to the village as Spain was.
The section “The other half of the night they didn’t sleep” begins with the townspeople walking around the dark. They are cold, hungry, and lost.
“And the people started to make the cross, when they brushed against each other because they thought maybe they had already been dead for some time, but that they were only now realizing it; and they felt that they had been deceased for a very long time, and now they were only haunting…and haunting themselves; they felt like the souls of men, and because they were souls they could only live in darkness; and they thought that if they were watching for the light of the sun it was so they could stop suffering, Since the darkness wasn't good for anything except for making more little dead ones.
And so in order not to go on suffering, they decided to invent the day, just in their heads…”
(30). The style of De Lions interludes within the novel is reminiscent of the literary style of the Popol Vuh through the way the sentences are structured. They are continuous and flow into each other, hardly ever breaking. Almost as if they are one long sentence.
Xibalba is described in the Popol Vuh as a realm below the surface of the Earth ruled by deities of death and diseases and symbolically was associated with the times when the sun was no longer visible as well as feelings of non-beingness.
The darkness that the villagers are in is Xibalba and they are waiting for the sun, which would be the beginning of life. The sentence “they decided to reinvent they day” links to the Popol Vuh’s creation of the earth. Tedlocks translation states: “And then the earth arose because of them, it was simply their word that brought it forth. For the forming of the Earth they said “earth”. It arose suddenly, just like a cloud, like a mist, now forming, unfolding.” The villagers say they felt like the “souls of men” and because they are in a state of non-being. “They could only live in darkness” has dual references, one to Xibalba where souls would walk around in darkness and another to the creation of humans.
In the Popol Vuh (The Bearer, the Makers, Modelers named Sovereign Plumed Serpent say: “The dawn has approached, preparations have been made, and the morning has come for the provider, nurturer, born in the light, begotten in the light. Morning has come for humankind, for the people of the face of the earth.” It all came together as they went on thinking in the darkness, in the night, as they searched and they sifted, they thought, they wondered” Humans are then formed from corn, the staple foods, used to create human flesh by the Bearer, Begetter, Sovereign Plumed Serpent. Therefore, the villagers deciding to invent the day in the novel can be tied to the creation of humans in the Popol Vuh and the morning has come for the residents of the town. They are creating themselves, remaking themselves after the disasters that have befallen their town and the destruction of the church. They willed themselves, created just by saying the words, into creating a new life for themselves and leaving the darkness of Xibalba and colonialism. They are reclaiming their indigenous identity and continue to move through time, rather than moving backwards (as people would refer to indigenous cultures as something from the past and not modern),.
Time in El Tiempo Principia En Xibalbá as Circular
The layout of the novel is written in a circular nature. The novel begins with the words, “Then, that night, first there was wind” as the title of the first section but also as the last words that are written. The entirety of the novel flashes forward and flashes backwards and phrases are repeated such as the instance where the village church has been built; “little by little, like an immobile and nameless bird that came into the world without needing to be hatched from an egg, and whose bones were born first, then its flesh, and finally its feathers until it stood there like a living fossil - slowly emerged from its foundations and, at last, got the finishing touch when it was painted as white as a Castilian pigeon, and then little thatched huts sprang up all around it like little hatchlings, nothing has ever happened in this town” which is first seen in First There Was Wind and then again in the Prologue which mirrors the cyclical aspect that the sentence “first there was wind has.
This circular motion of time in the book is connected to the conception of Maya cyclical notion of time called the k’atun, according to Arturo Arias, which is present in the earliest forms of the Maya calendar. Using a Maya concept to frame the book is also a way for De Lion to show resistance against Western colonial concept of time that were pushed on to the indigenous people in Guatemala and can be seen as decolonizing. Peter Osborne states that time is not something that is fixed despite the notions of looking at the world in a chronological order of progression, evolution, and development. Western ideas of time have always been associated with modernity and non-Western concepts of time have been seen as ideas that are stuck in time where the people are not able to move forward. Modernity categorizes time chronologically as well as defines it by the quality of the history creating a division between the present as its own time and the past as another time. Osborne sets up the concepts of non-contemporaneousness and chronologically simultaneous which states that time is not linear and different times can occur simultaneously without any geographical or temporal barriers. He states that modernity is a Western concept and that it is through a relationship with the West that the rest of the non-Western world is transformed.
This idea of modernity erases the cultures of non-Western societies that are deemed to be “backwards” people because they have not followed modernity and evolved or developed themselves. By holding onto their cultural worldviews, religions, and traditions they are “staying in the past” rather than following the rest of Western world. Through their resistance to Western modernity they are continuing to live alongside modernity, developing differently, and thus creating an alternate timeline of development that is not relative to the Western world. The cultures are now outside of time. Not modern but not completely “undeveloped”. They are chronologically simultaneous. Luis De Lion uses the Maya concepts of time to write his novel in order to prove that these ideas are not in the past as many Ladinos would assume, but they are living concurrently along with the Western ideas brought by colonial powers and the Catholic church. It’s also important to note that both the Popol Vuh and El Tiempo Principia En Xibalba are written in five sections which is further reference and connection between De Lion’s novel and the Popol Vuh. Luis de Lion therefore creates a cosmological continuity of the Popol Vuh into contemporary time that also brings indigenous identity into contemporary Central American literature.
Indigenous Identity in the Novel
The novel focuses on the indigenous town in Guatemala that has been Catholicized and colonized. The people in the town are as far away from personal connections to the Popol Vuh as they are from Spain and communism. Pascual shows disdain towards the indigenous characteristics of his hometown after living in the Ladino world and the military. He hates how frozen in time they are and how it’s always “the same old shit as always in this town”. They can’t invent any new streets, or last names, or faces and nothing has ever happened in town since its creation. Pascual is an indigenous person who tries to change himself in a ladino by joining the military where he believes he’d fit in more than his hometown. When he returns no one recognizes him and he brings with him “a strange face, as if he were someone different; he had pieces of gold in place of some of his teeth, which he made an effort to show with pride every time he laughed or talked; in his mouth he brought strange words, unknown, like a man who has learned other languages; on his feet he had shoes in place of sandals made from strips of discarded rubber tires; on his head he had a hat made of vicuna leather in place of the simple grace of the woven straw hat; and on his body clothes that were different than those the people wore in the village”.
In his return, he has rejected every aspect of his indigenous identity in order to embrace a ladino one instead. He shows off his golden teeth, a status of wealth and privilege that people in the town could not afford, whenever he talks showing that he had the access to dentistry which might not have been common in such a small town. His language has changed into a more Castilian Spanish and no longer uses those indigenous words that were looked down upon in the military and the ladino world. He no longer wears his sandals, or a woven straw hat, and his clothes are far from what the modest people of the town would wear. Pascual has put in a large amount of effort in order to change himself and assimilate but it ends up not being enough. He still returns to his hometown knowing that underneath the facade he is still indigenous He returns to the town to die because it is where his umbilical cord is buried, the town is a part of him and he knows that it is where he belongs and where he will die. He has tried to live in the ladino world, he tried to belong but it rejected him. The reader finds out that while Pascual was gone, after abandoning the army, he lived with a prostitute who only loved him because she gave him money. She refused to marry him or bare him a child because it “would be an indian, like his father”.
Pascual views the indigenous people in his village as all being the same, the same way that the town never changes or nothing ever happens. He narrates “You’re looking for a certain person, but it might as well be the first woman that happens to cross your path, who you know everything about; and you could ask for another woman, but even if the one you ask for is dead, it still seems as if she’s alive because the one in front of you is the same”. To him, all the women in the town are the same person. They are all the same life.
Gilles Deleuze identifies life as “all the moments that a given living subject goes through and that are measured by given living objects” Deleuze posits that the life of a person are classified by the experiences within that life but that a “singular life might do without any individuality, without any other concomitant that individualized it” which he uses the example of small children resembling each other with only a few things to separate them; a smile, certain gestures. The children have no individuality and that is how Pascual views the women in town. While, yes, they are all separate women, in his eyes they are all the same. While watching the women at the church Pascual sees them exactly as he had in his absence; “common, run-of-the-mill, with long hair, bare feet: Indians.” All the women in town have grown up with the same experiences, they have never seen the Ladino world, and have never left their town so to Pascual they are all as similar to him and the young children are to Deleuze. The only women who stands out to Pascual is the real Virgen de Concepcion who he described as being small, with long golden brown hair, eyes that didn’t look directly at a man, a straight thin nose, a mouth that had never kissed a man, a sweet shape like he’d never seen on any other woman, a flat chest, and a stomach that had the grace of a feather pillow. The Virgen de Concepcion is a European woman and ultimately that makes her stand out to Pascual who hates the indigenous women of his town because they all look the same and because she is the only Ladina in the village so she reminds Pascual of what he yearns to be.
His love for the Virgen de Concepcion leads to him stealing the statue from the church. He plans their escape and hides in the church until he can steal her. He sneaks her off to his house and removes her clothes “slowly, like a Ladino might undress his bride on their wedding night, full of desire, burning with passion” and then has sex with the statue all night long. Once the morning comes he describes her as “sad, old; haggard...her cheeks no longer with the slightest hint of color and her lips now were in need of some lipstick to make them appear fresh. She looked like a used up slut; she looked like a whore”. After he has his way with the statue of the Virgen, he looks at her and is disgusted with the way she looks now. Now that he taken her “virginity” she has been profaned.
Giorgio Agamben defines “to profane” as to return them to the use of man, in the context of religious objects. The objects are returned to the common use of men and are free of sacred names such as the word virgin. He points out that the passage from sacred to profane can come about in inappropriate ways which is what is seen when Pascual has sex with the statue of the Virgen de Concepcion and he no longer regards her as sacred. When he wakes up in the morning and looks at her, calling her a whore, he proceeds to throw her onto the floor as he no longer wants to look at her. She has lost what had made her sacred and what had made her attractive to Pascual. She is “used up” and no longer perfect with her lips that looked that used to look like that had never kissed a man. As the town walks in to his house and sees what has happened she also becomes profaned for them and they destroy the church and hit her with their machetes and spit on her. Through the act of destroying the church and no longer idolizing the ladino Virgen de Concepcion, the town is moving away from being a Catholicized and colonized town.
Through the use of language, references to the Popol Vuh, and indigenous concept of time Luis De Lion has created a novel that creates an indigenous identity to a town in Guatemala that has had a heavy Catholic influence thrown onto them by colonialism. The town eventually frees itself from colonialism through the profanation of the statue of the Virgen de Concepcion. Pascual, who wants to be Ladino, comes back to his hometown after realizing that he will never be a Ladino and that his indigenous identity will always define him. In a way, through his inappropriate acts with the statue he has freed the town from the worship of a Ladino figure and from the acts of colonialism that had befallen Guatemala when the Spanish had arrived.
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