‘A Pepsi and a bag of animal crackers’ [book review]

A review of Wars of the Interior by Joseph Zárate, translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott

‘A map is not an innocent drawing: it contains a political message,’ writes Joseph Zárate in Wars of the Interior, a highly charged and brave investigation of the under-reported conflicts playing out in the heartlands of Peru. The area – sometimes mountainous, sometimes lush with rainforest – is home to hundreds of indigenous communities but often unmapped, with the result that as nothing appears on official geographical documents, the land is ‘free’ to be plundered. It is from this part of the country, the interior, that the book takes its name, but also, as the author explains in his afterword, from ‘the mental and emotional space of human needs and desires’ – the interior of the self as an individual and, perhaps, of humankind as a whole. It is fitting, this title, as the book’s primary direction of movement seems to be forwards and inwards; slowly but steadily, it forces its way into the heart of uncomfortable questions, confronting us with inconvenient truths we know exist but would rather not see. It isn’t necessarily an easy read – but then, books of this magnitude rarely are.

Cover image Wars of the Interior

The three major ‘wars of the interior’ are (from Joseph Zárate’s perspective) caused by wood, gold and oil, Peru’s most valuable – and most dangerous – natural resources. According to the author, ‘in Peru, seven in ten social conflicts are caused by the exploitation of natural resources’, part of a widespread issue that has had devastating consequences for Latin America and, more widely still, the world in general. To those who read environmental and social reportage and attribute to themselves a certain degree of consciousness, a statistic like this might sound alarming, horrifying, rage-inducing – yet, in the end, it is just a number. That too much of our information about the world’s injustices is provided in the form of faceless statistics is part of the problem, a trend that Zárate’s book does its very best to counter.

Rather than looking at the big numbers – though he does occasionally, and to great effect – Zárate’s reporting focuses on individuals, beginning with one person before widening the net to include the community (or communities) in which they live. Thus we meet the late Edwin Chota, chief of an Asháninka community whose land and way of living are being destroyed by the timber industry; Máxima Acuña Atalaya, an extraordinarily courageous farmer from the mountainous region of Cajamarca, who is embroiled in a desperate fight to save her family’s land from a gold-mining corporation; and Osman Cuñachí, an eleven-year-old boy who is just one of many children to have waded into an oil-filled river on a potentially fatal clean-up operation necessitated by Petropéru, ‘the country’s most profitable state enterprise’. Though each story is different, they all have one thing in common: the overwhelming, terrifying helplessness of an individual facing a giant corporation.

Wars of the Interior is not a book designed to make its readers feel better. It does not offer solutions, nor any real cause for hope. (That Edwin Chota and Máxima Acuña Atalaya are particularly brave figures is undeniable, but the admiration we feel for their actions is quickly placed in context; these David and Goliath stories are rooted in reality and will not, we can tell, have a happy ending.) But while it might make for rather depressing reading, it is a book that deserves as wide an audience as possible – writing on similar subjects that ends with a sense of hope can be inspirational, but it is less likely to galvanise readers. While Wars of the Interior is thick with despair, it also contains a simmering anger and, though Zárate does not seem the kind of author to make this explicit, the sense that openly discussing these issues is perhaps the only chance we have of resolving them.

Part of this overarching emotional quality comes from the fact that Wars of the Interior is essentially three separate pieces of investigative journalism – Zárate has spent many years as a reporter, and this training shines through in his prose. None of the three sections is linked, and their tone also varies: the first, ‘Wood’, is considerably more journalistic, while ‘Gold’ and ‘Oil’ are more lyrical in style, as a result of which I found myself more invested in them. Though I committed to memory some shocking statistics about laundering wood – ‘thirty per cent of the wood sold worldwide is illegal’ – and the status of indigenous communities like the Asháninka in Peru, it was the final section, ‘Oil’, that made the most vivid impression.

Here, Zárate allows himself the use of more poetic imagery – Peru’s cross-country oil pipeline becomes ‘that metal boa constrictor with a tendency to shed its own blood’ – but it is the small, human details so intricately woven into the story that demonstrate his abilities not just as a reporter uncovering the facts, but also as a writer of literature. Osman Cuñachí, the young boy who came home from the river smeared in oil that has already impacted his health and may one day kill him, went into the water because Petropéru promised him 150 soles (roughly $46) – more than an adult could earn in a week from farming plantains. In the end, he was given just 2 soles, one of which he gave to his mother before using the second to buy ‘a Pepsi and a bag of animal crackers’. The words are simple enough, but the effect they have is heart-breaking. In this way, time and again, Zárate reminds us that we are dealing not with numbers, but with people – and in this case, a child. People who have needs and desires and ambitions, people who are killed on a daily basis by corporations and the so easily given ‘promise of prosperity for all’.

At the same time – importantly – Zárate calls the reader to account. Shortly after telling this story, he switches to a second-person perspective, describes how it feels ‘knowing that the people most interested in these tragedies are those who have never experienced them, who live in plastic-addicted cities, relieved not to be you’. There is a harsh truth in this, but one we must confront: it is all well and good to read and be shocked by this book, but if we truly want it to have an effect and not simply be a kind of voyeurism, we must then do something about it. Zárate doesn’t make it easy for us – he doesn’t suggest any actionable solutions – and so the reader is forced to face up not only to the truths exposed in these essays, but also the mirror held to our own behaviour. As a whole, the impact of this slender book is nothing short of devastating.

That we can read Wars of the Interior in English at all is thanks to the work of Annie McDermott, who has a rare sensitivity for translating distressing material – notably her rendering of Selva Almada’s Dead Girls – in such a way that the reader is captivated not only by the substance of the book, but also by the author’s voice. The rage felt by Zárate, which seems to careen between powerlessness and the desire to do something, is tangible in this book, leaving a lasting impression. And, in a broader context, it once again demonstrates the urgent need for translation, and more of it. Stories like these are vital – yet Zárate indicates one important caveat. Being interested is no longer enough; we must translate and read and absorb the message, but then we must act.

2 thoughts on “‘A Pepsi and a bag of animal crackers’ [book review]

  1. Oh gosh, this sounds like such an impactful book. The storytelling in Richard Powers’ The Overstory didn’t entirely work for me, but the conversation around the (over)use of natural resources (trees) in that book has haunted me ever since I read it, and I suspect this one would even moreso, as a work of nonfiction. What an incredible choice, centering the stories of real people over statistics and impressing upon the reader the need to act without offering an out in the text by suggesting actions- it is true that reading about something that can be done can make it easier to not do anything, horrifying though that is. We definitely need more books like this translated; in the meantime I’m adding this one to my TBR. Great review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much – I’m really glad you’ve added this to your TBR, as I definitely think as many people as possible should read it. I had exactly the same experience with The Overstory (and in fact I’ll be mentioning it in a review coming soon), and this one has definitely made a lasting impression too, particularly when it comes to wood and all the things we use oil to create. I would love to hear your thoughts on it at some point too!

      Liked by 1 person

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