Composed of three self-encapsulated, cross-cultural, slice-of-life, quotidian portraits that are intrinsically connected by the pervasive sentiment of marginalization – economic, political, ethnic, racial – Javier Corcuera’s The Back of the World is an understatedly observed, indelible, and provocative examination of the inextricable social cycle of poverty, exploitation, disenfranchisement, and disposability. The first chapter, entitled The Child, opens to a bookending sequence of a young boy named Guinder quietly rising – even before the first light of dawn – from a bed that he shares with several siblings in his parents’ cramped, ramshackle home to gather his adult-sized tools and set out along with several of his similar-aged friends, not for school, but for the local quarry in the impoverished rural village of Carabayllo on the mountainous outskirts overlooking Lima: an early morning ritual that, as Guinder subsequently explains, affords him additional time to work on the rocks and perhaps earn additional money for his family. It is a life that his parents do not wish for any of their children, but one that, nevertheless, has become an inescapable reality in a village struggling with chronic unemployment and limited opportunity. Yet beyond the inhumanity and desensitization of a childhood spent more on breaking rocks at the quarry than studying in an elementary school, Corcuera’s compassionate gaze captures graceful moments of a paradise not yet completely lost: a makeshift soccer game where the children momentarily act out the dreams of becoming professional athletes, a band of children working in the city as vendors, car washers, and market stall assistants who have found solidarity from the dangerous streets by organization into a union for protection, a group of village women who pool their meager resources to provide economically prepared meals for all the quarry workers at a community kitchen, a traveling circus that allows the children to indulge in all its silliness and over-the-top sight gags and briefly forget the austerity of their environment.
Inasmuch as Guinder and the impoverished villagers seem eternally bound to the Sisyphean ritual of breaking rocks in the quarries of Carabayllo, the second chapter, The Word, reflects a moral captivity as ethnic Kurd, former mayor of Diyarbakir in the now fractured former nation of Kurdistan (that has since been regionally divided among Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq), political dissident, and Turkish exile, Mehdi Zana sits in his empty apartment in Sweden and wistfully speaks of a beloved ancestral homeland that he can no longer return to (and politically, no longer exists), a wife (imprisoned parliamentarian and Sakharov Peace Prize winner, Leyla Zana) he cannot visit in captivity for fear of his own arrest, and university-aged children whom he can only visit a few times a year in France after being denied asylum by the government. Juxtaposing the tranquil, yet cold emptiness of Mehdi’s life in his adopted country with archival photographs, newsreels, and panoramic shots of modern day Diyarbakir and Istanbul (most notably, in the longstanding protest vigils of the women dubbed as “Saturday Mothers” searching for information on their missing loved ones in Galatasaray Square) that reinforce the chaos and dichotomy, yet enduring beauty of the landscape and its long-suffering, persecuted people (a paradox that is reflected in a woman’s comment on how the Tigris River, once a destination for lovers to meet, is now a place to look for bodies of missing loved ones), Corcuera illustrates the inhumanity borne, not of economic poverty, but of a spiritual one created by perpetual dislocation and exile.
On the surface, the concluding chapter, Life on the rituals of state execution in Texas may seem incongruous to the notion of innocent victims represented by Guindar and Mehdi. Told from the perspective of an aging, death row inmate, Thomas Miller-El (whose own conviction was subsequently determined by the Supreme Court to have been based on a skewed jury created by racially biased jury selection process) and Tomás Rangel, the father of a death row inmate who religiously travels from Mexico to Texas to meet with a support group for the families of death row inmates on announced days of execution in order to provide solidarity and publicly protest against capital punishment, Corcuera presents a potent inquiry, not into the attribution of guilt or innocence, but rather, on the nature of a state’s often inequitable dispensation of punishment, where the process of imposing a rigid code of moral righteousness itself leaves its own tragic legacy of voiceless, anonymous, and innocent victims. Concluding with the parting image of a pensive Thomas gazing out through the reinforced mesh of a visiting booth that segues to a kite navigated by Guinder flying over the horizon, the metaphoric image becomes one of a return to innocence, a spiritual transcendence achieved through the restored humanity of compassion, mutual struggle, and ennobled perseverance.
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