Nobel laureate `invented life story'

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The Independent Online
RIGOBERTA MENCHU, the Guatemalan human rights activist, may have fabricated key passages of the best-selling autobiography that paved the way to her winning the Nobel Peace Prize, according to a forthcoming book by an American anthropologist.

Ms Menchu has campaigned extensively on behalf of the indigenous peoples making up the bulk of Guatemala's peasant class. She painted a searing portrait of poverty and oppression in her book I, Rigoberta Menchu, which was first published in Spain in 1983.

Against the background of a bitter dispute between her family and the local landowners, she claims to have been denied all education, and to have watched a younger brother die of starvation and another being burnt alive by troops. Her book also details her pre-teenage years toiling in the fields while participating in an underground protest movement.

But many of these claims were either exaggerated, impossible to verify or were simply fabricated, according to Dr David Stoll, who has conducted almost a decade of research in and around Ms Menchu's home town of San Miguel Uspantan in north-west Guatemala.

The land dispute, according to Dr Stoll's account, Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, had nothing to do with wealthy landowners. Instead, it pitted Ms Menchu's father against his in-laws' family. Dr Stoll's findings were reported at length and largely corroborated in yesterday's New York Times.

Far from being unschooled, former teachers and other witnesses said Ms Menchu was educated up to middle-school level and spent a number of years as a scholarship student at a Catholic boarding school. Because she was away with the nuns, it seems highly unlikely that she was also working eight months of the year in the coffee and cotton fields and working as a secret political organiser.

The account of the younger brother dying of hunger wasrejected by one of Ms Menchu's older brothers. He told a New York Times reporter he had two siblings who died in infancy but they were both older than Rigoberta and had died long before she was born. As for the brother whom she said was burnt in front of her and her parents, neighbours and family members say he was kidnapped, handed over to the army and killed far away from his loved ones. Nobody recalled the mass killing in the village that Ms Menchu described.

Nobody doubts the metaphorical truth of Ms Menchu's account, however, as suffering and oppression were all too real, both in her family and in the lives of the peasants among whom she grew up.

Challenged about Dr Stoll's findings, she described her book, accurately, as being "part of the historical memory and patrimony of Guatemala".

But the apparent discrepancies raise questions about the degree of myth used and whether Ms Menchu's book is an autobiography or a propaganda weapon to aid the struggle of Guatemala's indigenous peoples. She has repeatedly refused to answer detailed questions about Dr Stoll's findings. Dr Stoll concludes that she "drastically revised the pre-war experience of her village to suit the needs of the revolutionary organisation she had joined".

The new evidence raises questions about Ms Menchu's Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in 1992 for the attention she was able to draw to the Guatemalan situation as a direct result of the popularity of her book. For now, the Nobel Committee in Oslo says there is no question of revoking the prize.

"All autobiographies embellish to a greater or lesser extent," the institute's director, Geir Lundestad, told the New York Times. He said Ms Menchu's achievements went far beyond the authorship of her book.