Book Notes: Jean Franco’s Cruel Modernity
In this book, Franco scoffs at novelist Mario Vargas Llosa for writing a book “in which a political viewpoint is presented in the guise of literary criticism.” This is particularly funny because that’s precisely what Cruel Modernity is. And the political viewpoint Franco presents is very tired and unoriginal.
After going on and on about cruelty being a defining characteristic of modernity, Franco decides to demonstrate she can be cruel, too. She berates, in a tone of great condescension, women who suffered horrific torture and gang rape at the hands of the Pinochet military for being “neoliberally individualistic” and allowing the torture to break them. I find it outlandish that a rich, comfortable Columbia professor would so easily mock women who endured such horrors. I’m not particularly known for my empathy skills but if you know what was done to people at Villa Grimaldi and you can’t find it in yourself to feel compassion, something must be deeply wrong with you.
Franco is a talented writer. Her style is exactly the one I want to develop. At the same time, she has this strange habit of retelling the plots of novels she discusses in a way that treat works of fiction as newspaper reports. As I was reading one such retelling of a novel by Vargas Llosa, I wondered how come I never read it. And then I realized that yes, I had. I was simply failing to recognize it in the plodding and uninspired retelling.
I wanted to like the book, I tried hard to like it but the chapter on the Pinochet victims just about did me in. When we start to demand that victims of horrific crimes live up to our high moral standards to get any compassion, that’s when you count me out of the process.