In an interview with Magnarelli in Reflections/Refractions: Reading Luisa Valenzuela, Luisa Valenzuela discusses her views on censorship, describing the different ways censorship can affect individuals. In particular, Valenzuela points out that one type of censorship occurs when an individual ‘‘will often refuse to read what he fears might hurt him, what might raise his consciousness or make him think beyond what he wants to hear.’’ Valenzuela goes on to identify the further ramifications of this way of thinking, stating that ‘‘to avoid the pain of confronting a reality that is not at all pleasant (people are disappearing or tortured or dead), one just refuses to recognize or acknowledge that reality.’’ Valenzuela speaks from personal experience. She is quoted elsewhere (as cited in Shaw’s The Post-Boom in Spanish American Fiction) as stating that, in Argentina in the 1970s, ‘‘some writers suddenly disappeared; many were threatened by the paramilitary forces. Publishers’ offices were bombed and thousands of books were destroyed.’’ The anxiety that Juan conveys in ‘‘The Censors’’ regarding the harm that might come to him or Mariana as a result of his letter is rooted in the oppression that Valenzuela witnessed her fellow Argentines experiencing for many years. Valenzuela uses the character of Juan to personify (that is, to embody certain ideas) the different methods of censorship. Juan censors others in marking up and deleting portions of their letters; he censors himself in the same way, marking up his own letter. Juan censors himself in the subtle, subversive way Valenzuela describes, by refusing to see reality and acknowledge that people’s lives are becoming endangered as a result of his actions and those of all the censors.
Throughout the short story ‘‘The Censors,’’ Juan enacts the role of the censor in a number of ways. As the story opens, Juan establishes the dangers posed by the censors. He describes the way the censors may take years to process a letter and send it on its way; sender and recipient may be dead before the letter reaches its destination. Both sender and recipient, Juan points out, are in danger. He expresses his fear that Mariana could be kidnapped, even in Paris, by the secret operatives employed by the censorship office. As soon as Juan obtains a position with the censorship office, he no longer seems concerned with the fact that anyone who has sent or been sent a letter is in danger. Initially, Juan seems focused on obtaining his letter to Mariana, but his focus soon wanes. When Juan is finally in a position to read and analyze the content of letters, his ‘‘noble mission blur[s] in his mind,’’ and his attitude toward the censors begins to shift. Juan begins to focus not on retrieving his letter but on the deception used by the people who have written the letters. He expresses his surprise that people would scheme in such a manner. This is described as a ‘‘horrible’’ time for Juan. He is stunned to discover how ‘‘conniving’’ people can be. In apparently innocuous phrases about the weather or the prices of goods, Juan now sees covert plans to stage a revolt against the government. Juan has become consumed by his role as a censor. He is psychologically transformed. The transition takes place over an undisclosed amount of time. But in this time frame, the Juan who was once fearful of being thought to have subversive intentions comes to see such subversion in everyone else. His paranoia has been transferred from the government to those he believes are trying to dismantle the government. Living in a culture of fear both prior to and during his time in the censorship office has altered Juan’s perceptions.
The narrator informs the reader that Juan is not interested in the wine his mother leaves for him or the girls who his mother tells him have called. Juan goes home after work, eats his dinner, and retires for the evening, devoted to his purpose. He has become one of the people he feared when the story opened. Having already linked the activities of the censors—their habits of studying every stain and stray mark on the page—with the state of imminent danger in which letter writers and letter receivers exist, Juan has now become the force of oppression, the source of danger to others. Not only does he actively censor the writings of others but he has also begun to censor himself in one of the ways Valenzuela describes. Juan refuses to acknowledge the truth; he no longer expresses his awareness that his actions, the actions of all the censors, jeopardize people’s lives. Rather, Juan becomes ever more zealous in his role as censor.
Juan now censors more letters than most of the other censors at the office; his basket of censored letters is ‘‘the best fed,’’ as well as ‘‘the most cunning,’’ a phrase that suggests that Juan is as conniving in his attempts to point an accusatory finger at the letter writers as he suspects the writers of being themselves. This phrase further implies that Juan is less concerned with the truth of the letters’ content than he is with impugning the intentions of the individuals sending and receiving letters. By the end of ‘‘The Censors,’’ Juan thoroughly represents the self-censor Valenzuela has described, the individual who refuses to confront reality. So blinded is Juan to the truth of what he has become, that when his own letter to Mariana reaches his hands, ‘‘he censored it without regret.’’ Juan censors himself in the sense that he alters the original sentiments he sought to express to Mariana, just as he has revised and deleted the writings of countless of other individuals who have attempted to send letters. In this way, Juan alters the truth of his self-expression and the expression of others. Such a transformation of reality for political purposes is among the tragedies enacted by Juan’s censorship. Furthermore, by refusing to acknowledge that physical harm is the likely result of censoring, Juan signs his own death warrant when he censors his letter to Mariana. He gives no thought to the consequences of his actions. One such consequence is his own execution the following morning. The reader is left not knowing what might become of Mariana, but from what Juan has suggested earlier in the story, it appears likely that her life is also in jeopardy.
As Valenzuela demonstrates through the character of Juan, censorship may take a variety of forms, but in all its iterations, at its core, censorship represents a denial of truth. Significantly, when the censor alters or eliminates truth, nothing is created to take its place. No ideology remains save that of control and oppression. Juan once mentions his ability to detect ‘‘the wavering hand of someone secretly scheming to overthrow the Government.’’ His enthusiasm lies in his skill at ferreting out what he believes is deception, but Juan never speaks about having anything to believe in after he loses his belief in his need to protect Mariana. His ‘‘noble purpose’’ has indeed been ‘‘blurred.’’ Juan is not full of political fervor. He speaks only of what he is against, not what he is for or what he works in service of. This vacuum that is left in the wake of the censoring and the subsequent executions is itself a thing to be lamented. Valenzuela suggests through ‘‘The Censors’’ that the destruction of personal and creative expression by a repressive government results in a void. The end of ‘‘The Censors’’ leaves such a void: Juan is dead, and Mariana’s fate is unknown. The government aims to destroy truth and distort reality through the activities of the censors. Valenzuela’s work leaves its own void, as the reader is left ponder what remains—what is left to believe in—in the world Valenzuela has described.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Luisa Valenzuela, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Catherine Dominic, Critical Essay on ‘‘The Censors,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010