Identity, the Body, and The People of Paper

The title of the Salvador Plascencia’s first novel functions and is symbolic on several levels.  The extant to which, as Liz teaches Plascencia on the first dedication, everyone belongs to the people of paper is addressed in manifold ways.

Taken literally, Merced de Papel is a person made of paper, the last of her kind.  The characters in the novel are fighting a war over being people of paper, people created in a book with ink and paper and from the author’s imagination, as well as against the lack of volition this entails.  Saturn is Plascencia, who makes his living by writing.  Apolonio writes his recipes and keeps them in a book.  The Vatican and Catholicism, a religion based on books like the Bible and the Catechism, have a heavy presence in the novel.

Beyond this, the novel addresses how we, as readers or as people in “real” life, are also people of paper.  For example, blood is constantly referred to as ink in the book, such as in describing the hoped for killing of Saturn:  the carnation knife must be put to his throat, “dragging the blade across the skin and stubble of his neck, letting his ink drop” (104).  The EMF gang are identified by the tattoos on their necks, the sign which Julieta tries to erase from Froggy, “trying to wipe the ink from his skin” (147)  Here ink marks membership, acceptance.   When “Smiley’s EMF membership was revoked,” the “letters that ran across the side of his neck were blotted into black blocks” (163).  Ink is also used as a means of casting out.

The 3rd of the laws of soothsayers instructs that “impending deaths are not to be announced, whether kin or water” (147), or by blood or water as is more common.  This blood also carries genes, which have predestination “written” (108) into them, as if people were reducible to their blood and therefore ink.  A more obvious example of this idea is that of finger and foot prints preserved in ink (176).

Blood is compared to ink in relation to writing as well, such as when Smiley describes the “dense, warm prose that stains the floors and always reappears six coats of paint later.  Something that will remain longer than any novel will” (105).  Here, blood is a substance used for the same purpose as ink, but is more permanent and more meaningful.

Just as blood and ink are linked, so too are the body and paper.  As mentioned, there is the obvious example of Merced de Papel.  As a person literally made of paper, everything she is is tied up in this substance.  However, there are other instances of paper being a defining substance.  For example, Cameroon and Saturn are not allowed to stay at the Hotel de los Novios without a marriage certificate, a piece of paper.   They forge one and are caught and expelled, told by the proprietor that “We are not to say who is in love and who is not.  We just need something official that proves it” (128), as if something as intangible as love were able to be conveyed or officialized in paper (though there are doubts about the level to which the couple is in love), or as if something as extraordinary as a miracle could be documented, officialized, and made part of a bureaucratic empire (199).

This trend continues in real life – we are not considered educated or qualified until we have a degree, a piece of paper which says so.  We are beholden to laws written down in the Constitution and other documents.  Even are identities are equivalent (for many purposes) to the driver’s licenses and student ID cards we carry, or the baptismal certificates (176) some are given (for those with Christian backgrounds).  We are all people of paper.

Why all of this?  As the metafictional elements and unorthodox typographies are the result of an awareness and self-awareness of print, this book brings the extent to which print and print traditions have infused our culture, our laws, our language, our thinking, our bodies.  I don’t believe the book makes  a claim or judgement about whether this is a good or bad thing (in fact the book seems to focus on how this is connected with both melancholy and passion), which is important to keep in mind when considering the effects of print.  This is doubly important given what we discuss in class, as blood and ink give way to electrons and keyboards.

Zack Manko


Plascencia, Salvador.  The People of Paper.  New York, New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2006.


~ by gottgeist501 on March 26, 2010.

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