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Writer challenges story of hardship that led to a Nobel prize

Web posted on: Tuesday, December 15, 1998 14:55:23 PMET

(CNN) -- Rigoberta Menchu' became an international symbol for human rights when her autobiography, "I, Rigoberta Menchu'" was published in 1983, revealing her brutal experiences at the height of Guatemala's civil war.

The depiction, written with the help of Venezuelan anthropologist Elisabeth Burgos, was so vivid that it paved the way for Menchu' to capture the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.

Now the book, and Menchu', are coming under attack. A new book written by American anthropologist David Stoll, "Rigoberta Menchu' and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans," claims "I, Rigoberta Menchu'" is a series of falsehoods and exaggerations, according to a report in the New York Times. The newspaper is also backing up Stolls version with it's own investigation into the issue.

After nearly a decade of interviews with more than 120 people and archival research, Stoll concludes that Menchu's book "cannot be the eyewitness account it purports to be" because Menchu repeatedly describes "experiences she never had herself," the Times reported.

Using contacts provided by Stoll and others found independently, The Times said it also conducted interviews that contradict Menchu's book and indicate she fabricated or exaggerated many episodes.

For instance, the land dispute (a central issue in the book) that pitted her father against wealthy landowners of European descent was really a battle between her father and his in-laws.

Another example cited in the Times article: A younger brother who died of starvation, according to Menchu's book, never existed.

'I am not the author'

In recent interviews, Menchu' has denied the allegations, or tried to distance herself from her book.

"I am the protagonist of the book, and it was my testimony, but I am not the author," said Menchu' in a September interview, according to the Times. "(Burgos) gave the book its final form, so she is officially the author of the book and has commercial rights to it."

This last bit of information is another discrepancy in Menchu's story, according to the Times, which quotes her in another book, "Crossing Borders," as saying she had full and final authority over the book.

But it seems uncertain what, if anything, will happen to Menchu' if she did create her story.

Geir Lundestad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute and permanent secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, told the Times there is no thought of challenging Menchu's award.

Lundestad told the newspaper in a telephone interview from Oslo that he was aware of the Stoll manuscript and had no reason to doubt its veracity, but said "there is no question of revoking the prize."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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