The Boy in the Wake and Other Liars

[For a Thai-language version “ละคอนตบตาแห่งโรงเรียนหมาหมู่,” click here.]

I find it harder by the page to relate to the self that I lived than to the three liars of Mario Vargas Llosa’s La ciudad y los perros.

Some years back maybe before the most recent coups I remember bookstores used to hold in inventory a steady supply of autobiographical memoirs by graduates of AFAPS and the four thai branch schools about their time as cadets. Like faceless soldiers, the subjects of these memoirs followed the same narrative prescription: civilian life before enrolment, the entrance exams, an arc on the rough transition, the lifelong bond of camaraderie forged in systemic hardship, the masochistic praise thereof, the exercise in moderation of senior year privileges, the postgraduation platitudes and the customary genuflection to the three colors on the thai flag, and so on. Not quite bestseller materials if you ask me but not thoroughly ignored neither perhaps on account of the dream people bought into and maybe still do. As far as I know no other cashgrab fad, or serious exposition for that matter, has published so many inside facts yet so little truth about the five schools for future tyrants.

Any causal thread linking violence and corruption, political or felonious, to the academies  remains unestablished thanks to a lack of critical public discourse on the thai military nurturing process. In the workplace former cadets observe a legal secrecy specific to and extrapolated from the cadet culture, a rewarding commitment to nonideology as they watch millions of baht being moved from this department to that directorate to subsidize and insulate the lifestyle of this general or that royal, and quietly await their turn at the trough. No doubt were a detailed condemnation that takes advantage of confessions by insiders to gain the same ground as did these masturbatory memoirs in thailand, efforts would be taken to swiftly suppress it the same way Vargas Llosa’s debut novel was suppressed in Peru.

A novel whose central event is the death of a cadet, The City and the Dogs strikes at the heart of authoritarian corruption. The most obvious moral of the story follows the arc of by-the-book officer Lt. Gamboa, who attempts to reopen the investigation into the death of cadet Ricardo Arana, and ends up killing his own career. When the big bully The Jaguar belatedly confesses to him in private that he murdered his fellow cadet, Lt. Gamboa’s arc culminates with his parting resignation: ‘It would be easier to bring Arana back to life than to convince the army it’s made an error.’1

A more radical reading, however, does not simply accept as true The Jaguar’s confession that he was the murderer. The three main cadet characters — The Poet, The Slave, The Jaguar — are all liars by nurture. The environment fostered by the Academy is a form of corruption in which survival as some made-up self forecloses all grounds for authenticity.

The Three Cadets

The three cadets’ epithets designate the roles they have adopted or been forced on by circumstances, expectations they must become in order to survive the Academy. Alberto Fernandez plays The Poet who sells lewd poetry to horny classmates, acts like a crazy idiot so he doesn’t get bullied too much. The young Domitila, brooking no lesser men to command his destiny, names himself The Jaguar and continues his life of crime in the Academy where he thinks his personal code and so himself can find validation. Ricardo Arana, nicknamed The Slave by The Jaguar for his timidity and incapability for any form of violence or assertiveness, remains the most constant victim of bullying since initiation, an outsider in his class.

Not too long after The Slave reveals to the officers a cadet’s theft of a chemistry exam that he witnessed, a theft on order of The Jaguar, he is shot in the head or neck during a field exercise. With the Academy pronouncing The Slave’s death an accident, The Poet, consumed by guilt and confronted for the first time by his own loneliness, puts forth an accusation that The Jaguar shot The Slave in retaliation for snitching on the exam theft. The aftermath of this secret scandal in turn forces The Jaguar to confront his own fragile position at the top of the cadet’s pecking order.

Though the story takes place in Peru, parallels between Leoncio Prado and AFAPS suggest a shared military culture. Like AFAPS, cadets enrolled in Leoncio come from diverse social backgrounds. Alberto Fernandez The Poet represents the moneyed upper class, and Ricardo Arana The Slave represents the middle class teetering between comfortable subsistence and poverty. Both boys are considered a social investment by their respective families who procured tutors and pricey samples in preparation of the Leoncio Prado entrance exam. The Academy purports to shatter these class differences and mold the broken pieces into a new family unit. In the subsuming process, the individual is left isolated from other individuals by new layers of social expectations they are forced to wear.

A common molding strategy among thai military schools is to treat each new cadet as equally less than human. Basic human rights are given piecemeal over time and with consent from senior cadets and officers, like the thai son receiving allowances from the thai father: first years are at first not allowed to walk outdoors, bodily motions are restricted to the perpendicular, contact with the outside world is limited to a monthly phone call, and so on. Under perpetual duress and deprived of any means to real connection and class awareness, the cadets of AFAPS, as well as those of Leoncio Prado, bond over hedonism, racism, sexism, and live a paradoxically depraved existence in an academy whose stated mission is to produce honorable leaders. The novel makes explicit this point of pride in real-world indoctrination programs: that cadets are to wholeheartedly regard their camaraderie, which includes the seniors and the officers that they despise and the juniors that they abuse, as a second family even and especially after their time in the Academy.2

The novel does not touch on the family-like relationship between class years in Leoncio Prado. Instead it brings to the forefront the product of this oft romanticized humiliation, a repression embodied in the ultraviolent and delinquent Jaguar, behind whose apocrypha of ferocity and ruthlessness his classmates rallied to protect themselves from their seniors during cadet initiation and beyond.

On the surface we have here the hero of the story in The Poet, and the villainous killer in The Jaguar. Yet the Sartre quote opening PART ONE of the novel suggests otherwise. The english translation goes:

We play the part of heroes because we’re cowards, the part of saints because we’re wicked: we play the killer’s role because we’re dying to murder our fellow men: we play at being because we’re liars from the moment we’re born.

In this sense, there may be no polarity between The Poet and The Jaguar: The hero plays the part of hero because he is nothing of the sort. The killer because he is not a killer. And all three play at being because they are no beings at all.

The Poet, the Coward

The literally translated title The City and the Dogs refers to the city of Lima in which the Leoncio Prado Military Academy is situated and to the Academy’s Third year cadets who are likened to dogs by the senior Fourth and Fifth. The title given by the Faber and Faber edition is The Time of the Hero. One assumes this Hero refers to a main narrative character who upholds some abstract good despite tribulation in the course of the novel. However, none of the cadets and officers at Leoncio Prado fit the criteria, least of all Alberto Fernandez Temple The Poet. The novel itself questions the value of nationalistic loyalty to the fatherland attributed to Peruvian heroes enshrined all over Lima, Leoncio Prado being one of them. The deadpan irony of the Faber and Faber title seems almost a denigration of the complaisant reader who is better off reading an AFAPS memoir.

Indeed it is possible to read The Poet’s accusation against The Jaguar as the heroic moment, the moral crossroads in Alberto’s coming of age. But this accusation can only be considered heroic insofar as The Poet is able to justify it with noble intent. Along with the accusation, Alberto also confesses his own mistreatment of Ricardo; that he used to join in on the bullying because everyone else did it; and that he paid back Ricardo’s help in the chemistry exam with dating his love interest Teresa behind his back. The affair with Teresa is perhaps the starkest reminder to the reader if not to himself that he is no better than his cheating father. At one point Alberto’s possessiveness of Teresa waxes so strong that his firstperson introspection becomes laced with uncontrolled paranoid blurts. One of these blurts entertains the thought of telling The Circle the identity of the snitch — effectively almost pointing The Slave out for The Jaguar, as his guilt would later have him believe, to kill.

Nobility is here flipped on its head. Whereas guilt motivates the hero to redeem, projection motivates the coward to blame.

Armed with nothing but self-resentment and circumstantial evidence that The Jaguar was behind The Slave in the field exercise formation where the latter got shot, The Poet submits the accusation and reveals the illicit activities going on in the barracks, in his mind avenging The Slave who never once participated in such activities.3

The Hero-Poet perspective becomes untenable when Alberto is called before the colonel and fails to affirm his conviction by putting his material wellbeing at stake. When the colonel insists that he withdraw his baseless accusation, threatening expulsion on charges of sexual perversity with evidence in the form of sheaves of lewd poems and so tarnishing his record and possibly dashing the american dream his father has promised, the first emotion that comes washing over Alberto is one of relief. Realizing he has overplayed his performative indignation, The Coward is thankful to be so easily spared from further embarrassment.

The reader may at this point choose to deride the Academy authority for stunting The Poet’s moral development and thereby defeating its own purpose. But keep in mind that save for Lt. Gamboa the officers and soldiers stationed at Leoncio Prado all turn a blind eye on infractions the pursuit of which would not elevate their resume, all are slackers and cowards looking out only for their own career.4 If anything, Alberto The Coward is precisely the kind of cadet the Academy says doesn’t exist in its ranks but proudly churns out by the hundreds every year.

The Jaguar, the Liar

The novel contains three strands of past narrative each belonging to Ricardo, Alberto, and The Jaguar. Since the reader never hears The Jaguar’s full name whenever another character speaks it, his past narrative at first seems as though it could belong to any of Alberto’s classmates.

Up until the moment of epiphany, for me a little over halfway through the novel, when the reader realizes that Teresa’s childhood sweetheart is none other than The Jaguar, we are forced to regard the scattered perspectives that other cadets hold of him with suspicion: Jaguar the leader who organized the Dogs against bullying by seniors, Jaguar the bully who held down and forcefed another cadet his own shaved hair, and Jaguar who kicked and later murdered The Slave. Only at that moment do the frayed ends begin to merge into a thread tracing The Jaguar beyond his legendry.

The complete mystery that is The Jaguar’s given name parallels one unique fact about him: he chose to enrol in the Leoncio Prado of his own accord. The role of Jaguar, his fight for survival, precedes the Academy. A former model student, the young Jaguar began working burglary to provide for his disapproving widowed mother. Driven on and away by his mother’s cold proclamation that he belongs in prison, he left home and became a full-time gang member.

Years later when most of the gang was sent to prison, The Jaguar fled and returned to find his mother dead a long time ago. Tearless he wandered the ruins of his childhood, unable even to visit his mother’s grave in fear of the police, and ended up at his godfather’s doorsteps and lived there for a time. Finally, The Jaguar decided to attend Leoncio Prado. He has become more Jaguar than Domitila–his real name–that the role has taken over the life. The irony of the officers’ blindly nostalgic complaint that the Academy has become a reform school where thieves are sent to be straightened out against their will when in fact the actual thief is the only one who wanted to be here should not fail to elicit a light chuckle from the reader.

Ever searching for a family that would finally have him for The Jaguar he has chosen to be, the hardened codebound Jaguar who laughs at the Academy’s ritualistic initiation playacting and at the seniors and asks to their faces if they think they are real men,5 he finally sees the cowardice of his chosen family, so loyal to him when they were weak and at the mercy of seniors, who at the first sign of trouble would rather blame him than find out the truth. Realizing the damage on Ricardo that the brutal camaraderie he used to lead had done, he decides to the let cycle of blame end with himself and confesses to The Slave’s murder to Lt. Gamboa, remarking ‘I think the best thing is to put me in prison. Everybody said that’s where I’d end up, my mother, you too.’ 

Do we join in with The Poet and the rest of the cowards on blaming The Jaguar without evidence even if, especially if he invites it? Do we see the killer or the liar? The confession functions much differently when read as a cry for help of a child haunted by his mother’s contempt, the words he remembers her by. And lest the reader lapse into the bad habit of heromaking, be reminded of how The Jaguar preys on the weak, how he broke and bloodied the boy who went out once with his childhood sweetheart, how he forced The Slave to take his place on guard duty the night he witnessed the exam theft. Yet unlike Ricardo’s father who wanted to make a man out of his son and accepted no responsibility for his son’s death, The Jaguar who wanted to make men out of his classmates could no longer live with a clear conscience. From the wreckage left behind by family, blood-related or blood-sworn, the orphan alone emerges some sort of man that ultimately bears no resemblance to the one existing in any father’s symbolic order.

* * *

The Slave died with Ricardo, but can Alberto survive without The Poet? The reader witnesses The Poet’s burial alive when Alberto decides to dismiss the three years he spent in the Academy as an unwanted disruption of his Miraflores life, ‘a corpse best not to revive.’ The Alberto who has now ‘regained his future’ seems an entirely different character, as if something real had gone out of his life as he stares off across the ocean, sight lost in the foam and the future that is the US, yet another destination he did not choose for himself.

Cadets continue to die under falsely reported circumstances within AFAPS’s inaccessible confines, while on the outside its graduates and dropouts operate camp-like tutoring schools that charge parents exorbitant rates to prepare their teenaged sons for the cadet’s life through unsupervised physical torture, a taste for what’s to come. Authority continues to disavow any excessive violence but does nothing beyond nominal reassignment in the bureaucratic structure and temporarily increasing regulation enforcement. Short of institutional reform or abolishment, maybe there’s radical potential and imperative for a new breed of dissentient AFAPS memoirs. The kind that might save Slaves-and-Poets-to-be.


1 The reader is welcome to do their own textual investigation into the matter of the truth behind Ricardo’s death. Plot out timeline of events, compare the different versions of the autopsy report given by different characters, assess The Jaguar’s behavior prior to the crackdown and his interaction with The Poet in the guardhouse jail, etc. They will find all indications inconclusive and must begrudgingly accept the Academy’s official version of the truth decided behind closed doors that Ricardo’s death is to be blamed on his own negligence of proper military discipline (even though Lt. Gamboa admits in another meeting behind even more closed doors that the Academy-issued rifles are old and unsafe).  Here, Vargas Llosa puts the reader in a situation where to judge The Jaguar is also to test their own moral conviction.
2 This makebelieve fraternization defies common sense to the point of madness. In effect, a 49th class AFAPS graduate counts thai dictator Prayuth Jan-Ocha, a 12th class graduate, as a blood brother and vice versa.
3 The military of course encourages cadets to break the written rules. In small circles at night after rollcall, senior cadets or officers would say to new cadets, “You can smoke behind the bathrooms. But shield the glow with your hand and throw away the butts somewhere far from the battalion so I don’t catch you doing it.” It nominally denounces such violations only to appease the Big Other.
4 It is common in thai military to hear of the idealistic young officer who, like Lt. Gamboa, steps on the wrong toes by simply doing his job. E.g., for suggesting that some computers on a purchase order to a private company were unreasonably priced above the market, an acquaintance of mine was transferred out of headquarters in Don Mueang and ended up somewhere close to the border in a deadend assignment he only got out of by kissing some other superior’s ass and going with the flow henceforward.
5 Egos such as The Jaguar’s would be swiftly singled out and nipped in the bud in AFAPS where seniors are more numerous and are given active authority in the chain of command.