Luis De Lión, Time Commences in Xibalbá

Publisher: University of Arizona Press

2012, 152 pages, paperback, $23

Open Time Commences in Xibalbá. Observe that the first four chapters are sentence fragments beginning with em dashes, which appear to be interrupted thoughts. If read together, they seem to form a poem. Notice the last chapter is the Prologue—as if the story is told backwards. Perhaps there’s another sequence that must be deciphered. At this point, you realize, even before you turn to the first page, that what you’re about to read isn’t a traditional narrative.

From the very beginning of the novel, the reader enters a mythical world that at first appears to be a common village disturbed by a “mischievous little wind” blowing up women’s skirts. However, as the story progresses, the language suggests something more catastrophic and fantastic.

De Lión describes how the angry wind “killed the chickens, scratched at the clothes of the people, bit into their flesh, and ran its rough, blunt tongue all the way up past their hearts, to the very bottom of life itself.” It throws villagers to the ground and piles them together. Batters birds and breaks their wings. It lasts only a moment then is gone, leaving destruction and a deafening silence that stunned villagers don’t dare break. Soon after, the townspeople hear “tra-ca…tra-ca…tra-ca” from the place where the wind first appeared. It’s the sound of the town’s dead witch, pushing her cart of bones from house to house.

This marks the beginning of the story, or perhaps the end. The most disorienting element of Time Commences in Xibalbá is the ambiguous relationship between the story’s events. It wasn’t until I became familiar with the characters that I realized the scenes weren’t chronologically ordered. When I came to the end, I noticed the last few words of the novel were the same as the title of the first chapter, connecting the end of the novel to its beginning, and revealing a cyclical notion of time.

It may appear as if this is a work of postmodernism or magic realism, and it may indeed fit into these literary movements. However, the novel’s greatest influence is Popol Wuj, a body of Mayan creation myths. Luis De Lión, a Kaqchikel Mayan, wrote Time Commences in Xibalbá in the early 1970s though the manuscript remained unpublished. In 1985, the novel was finally published—one year after a Guatemalan dictatorship’s death squad killed De Lión for his criticism of the government. Thanks to Nathan C. Henne, the novel has been translated into English for the first time.

Xibalbá, which translates to “place of fear,” is the mythical underworld in Popol Wuj. The road to this underground world is rife with tests, trials, and traps. If people cannot outwit the tests, they are killed or humiliated. In Popol Wuj, the hero twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, are able to defeat the lords of Xibalbá. Time Commences in Xibalbá also has hero twins—Pascual and Juan Cacas. However, they are only symbolic twins in that both are Mayan men who’ve returned to their village after each assimilates into one of the two powers of colonial Guatemala—the army and the church, respectively. While Juan receives a seminary education, Pascual spends time in the army and jail. Both return Westernized.

Upon his return, Pascual is disgusted with the villagers. He sees them as inferior yet finds comfort in the village after years of being racially marginalized. In the city, he says, “When they see your skin color, your face, your hair, they think that you’re not a man.” However, Pascual says of the village, “Even if they hate you here, that hate seems like love because, if you die, at least they’ll bury you.” Juan’s return isn’t shown in the novel, but his ultimate response is similar to Pascual’s. Both men want to be white.

Their desire to be white and racial self-loathing are played out in their relationship with Concha, a village woman who looks exactly like the statue of the church’s Virgen de Concepción except that she’s brown. Like the other men of the village, Juan and Pascual both desire and hate Concha at the same time, emotions which collide at the novel’s climax. Just as Xibalbá is the location of the defeat of the gods of the underworld, the village of Time Commences in Xibalbá is the site of a symbolic struggle against colonial legacy in Guatemala.

—Angela Hemmeter