Roa Bastosmachine

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Presented at LASA 2015
San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 2015

“Roa Bastosmachine: Explosiveness and Multitude in the Boom”

This is the third of a trio of essays, at present in varying states of completion, in which I explore the relationship between Latin American literature and posthegemony. Each of the three is dedicated to a distinct aspect of posthegemony, though collectively they are united by an interest in machines and the machinic. Hence with their titles I appropriate the formulation of East German playwright Heiner Müller, whose Hamletmachine is a well-known recasting and reinvention of Shakespeare. The other two essays are “Arguedasmachine” (on affect) and “Borgesmachine” (on habit). Together, these essays are also intended to constitute a re-reading of the Latin American canon, and so to suggest that posthegemony is far from being a marginal aspect of literary production, but rather a central and ineludible feature of the so-called mainstream. For there is, of course, no hegemony and never has been.

Boom! Already the name itself of Latin America’s most famous and influential literary movement indicates unpredictability, disruption, and not a little violence. The pity is that it was so quickly and so easily defused, domesticated, captured. Boom! Already the name itself is transcultural, transculturated, transculturating: an English term to describe a phenomenon with global ramifications, from Buenos Aires to Barcelona; Paris, Mexico City, New York. And yet the movement’s key texts are still read in regionalist or localist terms, as national allegories or tales of underdevelopment. Boom! Already the name itself is onomatopoeic rather than signifying, interjection rather than sign: it does not so much refer to something elsewhere, as instantiate and reproduce an sensation here and now; its impact is intense and affective, a matter of feeling and the body rather than interpretation or consent. And yet our reading of the movement’s authors is endlessly wrapped up in issues of representation and representativity. Boom! Already with the name itself there is nothing natural or organic here, rather an explosion that shatters boundaries and sows disorder with immediate effect, before we even have time to catch our breath. It is a mad machine, or volatile conjunction of machinery, that works always by breaking down, in fits and starts, setting off a chain reaction that multiplies and resonates with an entire multitude. What a mistake to have ever said the Boom, as though it were once and once only. Boom! As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari put it in another context, “Everywhere it is machines [. . .] machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections” (). Everywhere they fire and discharge, detonate and recompose something new from the pieces. Boom! Boom! BOOM!

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An Empty Room

Mu Xin, An Empty Room

The title of this collection of short stories by Mu Xin is well-chosen, for this is narrative that is sparse and under-stated, sometimes to an extreme. It would be easier at times to detail what doesn’t happen in these tales than what does, for there is a constant sense of missed opportunities, missed connections. In the opening story, “The Moment Childhood Vanished,” for instance, a child coming home from a trip to a Buddhist monastery leaves his bowl behind. Someone runs to fetch it, but then the child drops and loses it forever in a river. The title story, “An Empty Room,” recounts the discovery of a room that turns out to be almost, if not quite, empty: strewn on the floor are letters that seem to reveal a love story that can’t quite be fully pieced back together. “The Windsor Cemetery Diary” concerns a fleeting and uncertain dialogue between two people who never meet and communicate only by turning over a penny in an otherwise abandoned graveyard. As the narrator notes at one point, “I put these thoughts in my diary to show that there is nothing to be recorded” (134). Little to nothing happens, but it is precisely this nothingness that is to be memorialized and pondered.

And of course the room is not completely empty. In the story of the same name, there are traces of some other narrative, even if it can never be fully reconstructed. Or in the cemetery, the periodic flipping of the coin is sufficient basis on which an entire series of hypotheses can be constructed. And even if one day the coin were not to be flipped, that too would send a series of possible messages, such as “I am dead. I have completely forgotten you. I do not come anymore” (140). It is as though Xin were asking what is the minimum material element of a signifying system, the degree zero of signification. Yet he also teases us with the prospect that there might be more, that there might be a whole hidden script that might one day unfold. “Quiet Afternoon Tea,” for example, tells the tale of a long-married couple apparently plagued by an untold story, of what happened–or didn’t happen–one day (the date and time are quite precise: October 26th, 1944, between three and seven o’clock) some forty or fifty years previously. The couple’s niece seems to think that this is a story that has to be told, for the benefit of her uncle and aunt alike, and does everything in her power to engineer a cathartic dénouement. But nothing happens: she leaves the two of them alone, and “there isn’t a sound” (91). It’s as though the pair are in fact perfectly content for the mystery to remain, or even that it’s precisely what remains unsaid, not what is said, that keeps them together.

It would be easy, no doubt too easy, to ascribe this pared-down tone to some kind of Asian reserve. Indeed, at times Xu seems to play on the notion of Buddhist self-abnegation: one story (“Fellow Passengers”) compares us to pipes “through which both joy and sadness flow. A pipe with all sorts of emotion flowing through it until one’s death or until it is emptied” (97). It ends with the dual assertion: “They are insignificant people. I am less than insignificant” (98). And yet there is a fascination with the almost ethereal traces left by such insignificance, traces that ultimately signify almost despite themselves, despite our shared hollowness or emptiness. In “Halo,” then, there is a lengthy discussion of the iconography of saintliness, in both Western and Eastern cultures. The Western halo, we’re told, is “false and awkward,” a “flaw [. . .] so embarrassing that it further inspires the eloquence of atheists” (108). The Eastern halo, by contrast, is more than mere pictorial “decoration” (112); it derives from an “internal calmness bordering on the state of sainthood” (110).

In the end, however, Xin rejects Western and Eastern traditions alike, in favour of “another kind of halo,” much more materialist if equally minimalist, “that exists in the dim realm of suffering” (112). He has a sculptor tell a story of when he was imprisoned “in the second half of the twentieth century, in a certain decade” (113)–one of Xu’s fleeting but repeated allusions to his own incarceration, during China’s Cultural Revolution. In a crowded cell, the artist meets an old man who mentions the Buddhist halo and then points to the cell wall against which the more privileged inmates sit and where:

Miraculously, I could suddenly make out a hazy circle behind the head of each prisoner. With so many heads repeatedly rubbing against the chalky surface, sweat had tainted patches of the wall in circular shapes. Since everyone was of a different height, the repeated rubbing produced circles of proportionate size to the heads before them. The circles were exactly like the dignified light of Buddha portrayed in ancient art. [. . .] I almost burst out laughing–the subtle profundity had to be felt not just spoken. (115-6)

Once the prisons were emptied, then, the halos would remain, a ghostly but absolutely material trace that can only point to, never fully encapsulate, an entire history of power and something like resistance that goes beyond words. And when the sculptor finishes his tale, “We raised our glasses. Why we didn’t quite know why we needed to empty the glasses, we emptied them anyway” (116). Mu Xin shows no great nostalgia for the fuller description and understanding that is inevitably lost; he knows them to be irrecuperable. Such is the way of the world, the effects of time and history. But even in their inevitably incomplete, precarious state, the traces of these broader histories deserve some acknowledgement, perhaps celebration, though we may not exactly know why.

Delirio II

Laura Restrepo, Delirio

In the end, everything is resolved: Laura Restrepo’s Delirio obeys the generic requirements of both the detective story and the romance, as the enigma of Agustina’s “four dark and dreadful days” while her husband was away is finally revealed, and the couple get back together, having survived the tribulations of madness and memory. All is ultimately well, as the crazy one ends up only “playing the fool” as she pretends not to see the red tie that Aguilar has put on as a sign of their renewed love (303). As I commented earlier, however, this is surely all a bit of a let-down. Not least because the solution to the mystery turns out to be remarkably banal: nothing of any particular note took place at the hotel where Agustina was found; the man she was with was simply there to look after her, and had no designs on her, nor even any real interaction with her; the trigger for her breakdown took place elsewhere, and was in any event merely an overheard conversation that imparted no real surprise or new information; everything of any significance had in fact already taken place long before, and if anything the only real question is why Aguilar had been so clueless about his wife’s past. In short, the mystery of the missing four days comes to seem like a classic cinematic McGuffin: a narrative device that is meaningless or empty in itself. And perhaps it is the vacuousness of the final revelation that enables the happy conclusion, in that there is nothing much for the wounded husband to pardon and indeed crazy Agustina emerges from the story both saner and saintlier than ever. Even the conclusions to the other narrative strands are likewise heart-warmingly low-key. Midas McAlister, for instance, the ne’er-do-well arriviste money-launderer, also ends up where he started, back home with an apparently all-forgiving mother. And Bichi, Agustina’s much put-upon younger brother, is about to arrive at the airport, boyfriend in tow, to a warm welcome from Aguilar and family. Individuals and families alike have been (so far as is possible) put back together. Something like unity and wholeness has replaced the earlier fragmentation and dissolution.

Nothing is perfect, of course, and the Londoño family remains stubbornly divided: her mother and older brother still cling to their sense of status and respectability; it is after all their rejection of Bichi that sparked the crisis. And for all Agustina’s troubled hallucinations that predicted the imminent return of the father, he is dead and gone, as are her grandparents with their own anxieties and concerns. Aguilar remains separated from his kids, despite a brief fantasy of reconciling with his first wife, and Restrepo knows not to push the comedic conventions too far by suggesting that, after two previous terminations, Agustina would ever be likely to produce a child. The family that they (re)construct, then, is partial and hybrid: husband and wife (though in fact they are formally unmarried), aunt, brother, lover. But the suggestions seems to be that the absences no longer haunt this happy rearrangement as they once did. When Aguilar finally returns home, having passed up on the opportunity of a fling with a sexy hotel clerk, he is greeted with familiar smells, familiar habits: “a smell of home, what else can I say, an everyday smell, of people who sleep at night and wake up in the morning, of real life, of life that has here once more returned to the realm of the possible, I don’t know for how long but at least while this smell lasts” (302). That night, then, “the last thought that cross my mind [. . .] was I’m happy, tonight I’m happy even though I don’t know how long this happiness will last” (302). However precarious or partial, it is still, surely, too good to be true. As Aguilar says, renouncing his rationalism, “Forgive me Voltaire but this is a miracle” (300).

What’s more, even if the personal and familial dislocations are (miraculously) addressed by the end, the social delirium remains untouched. And this indeed is what makes any sense of resolution all the more unconvincing. For the novel as a whole has hitherto consistently stressed the fact that there is no refuge from broader social dislocations. The one moment of intimacy between Agustina and her father (“the only time that he calls me Tina” [79]) may be their nightly ritual of locking doors and windows to keep out thieves or other potential threats. Just for a while, “everything changes because he and I enter in a world we share with nobody else, as he give me his heavy keychain that rings out like a cowbell” (79). But this ceremony is like the many others in the book, that are ultimately ineffective attempts to conjure away a violence whose insidious presence is always already within the home as well as without. In the end, the one spectre that cannot be conjured away is the ghostly absence/presence of the country itself, a place of which Midas McAlister (the most plugged-in of all the major characters) says that “if it weren’t for the bombs and the bursts of machine-gun fire that echo in the distance, whose tremors reach me here, I’d swear that the place called Colombia had stopped existing long ago” (289). There is little left of the country, caught in the networks of drug traffic and money-laundering that have little respect for any national borders, except for the violence whose reverberations and resonance (sometimes quite literally) explode the fuzzy barrier between public danger and private safehaven.

Why, then, is the social delirium so different, so much more intractable than the private or familial madnesses that (however temporarily or unconvincingly) the novel can claim are cured by the end of the narrative? I think it is more than a matter of either scale or history. After all the insanity that touches Agustina or the Londiños is no more or less historical than the national breakdown, going back at least three generations (perhaps further). No, I think it is this: that paradoxically the more intimate, the more private the derangement, the more it can seem to be ideological. In the end, after all, the source of Agustina’s disturbance are the serial falsehoods that she has to endure. She announces the fact early on, though neither Aguilar nor Aunt Sofi pick up on this rather simple resolution to the apparent mystery: “Why does she want to purify the house? Because she says that it’s full of lies, this morning she was relaxed as she was eating the egg that I served her for breakfast and she told me that it was the lies that were making her crazy. What lies? I don’t know, but that’s what she said, that the lies were making her crazy” (42). Towards the end, it’s Midas McAlister who goes through the “Londiño Catalogue of Basic Falsehoods” (234), the “convenient historical revisions and lies as big as mountains that are gradually turned into realities by mutual consensus” (233). By contrast, the way the country works (or doesn’t) is a matter of public knowledge, at least for everyone but the traditional oligarchy who try deny the new realities yet more often don’t even bother to ask about “the delirious way in which they were getting rich, in the most hygienic style possible, not sullying their hands with murky business [. . .]. Or is it,” Midas asks Agustina, “that you perhaps believed, my queen, that things were otherwise?” (63). Everybody knows, after all: “Don’t make that surprised face,” adds Midas, “don’t make me laugh, don’t come telling me that you hadn’t already figured out this little mystery” (64).

In Colombia as a whole, revelation lacks its power to shock, let alone to induce any change or resolution. It’s thoroughly posthegemonic. So the simulacrum of hegemony passes to the private domain: the notion that some consensus is obscuring more basic truths can only seem to function within the family, within the home. Yet this, too, is a mirage, as Bichi discovers to his cost when he attempts the dramatic gesture of displaying photos that prove his father’s long-running affair with Aunt Sofi. But even after detonating this “atomic bomb,” nothing really changes; it’s as though, Agustina reflects, her mother had always known. The only difference is that, at home, she can (just about) pretend to know otherwise, and the novel as a whole can (just about) pretend that access to the truth can somehow keep the demons of insanity at by. But it isn’t so for society as a whole, and ultimately the happy ending is barely credible for Agustina and Aguilar, either. Perhaps the greatest delirium here, the most violent dislocation between representation and reality, is the therapeutic notion that all this incessant talking can induce a cure, can bring sanity back to the individual or the family. The neat ending, the restoration of order, is in fact the craziest thing in the book.

Delirio I

Laura Restrepo, Delirio

What exactly is the delirium to which Laura Restrepo’s Delirio refers? In the first instance, it is the mental collapse suffered by the central character, Agustina Londoño, in the brief period while her husband, a dog-food salesman named Aguilar, is away on a business trip. For on his return she is gone from the house, and turns out to be holed up in a luxury hotel where she had booked in with a strange man who has left her almost catatonic, distraught and unrecognizable. The novel is driven, then, by this initial mystery: what was she doing there and what has caused such a drastic disturbance of her senses? Yet as her husband plunges into this investigation, it is soon revealed that Agustina’s breakdown has deep roots, and Aguilar has to acknowledge how little he really knows of his wife, her past, and her family. For it turns out that her madness is neither a new development nor simply a personal matter. She has always been a little “crazy,” and not only in the chic sense of an upper-class rebel who flits between fashionable obsessions: soft drugs, batik, feng shui. She has gained some minor fame for her supposed psychic powers, claiming to be something of a “seer.” More seriously, she comes from a severely dysfunctional upper-class Colombian family, with a distant and unforgiving father, a mother who will do anything to keep up appearances, a heartless older brother, and a younger one who was beaten and then ostracized for his effeminate tendencies. A generation further back, her immigrant grandfather apparently committed suicide while her great-aunt (his sister) was a full-fledged neurotic who had to be tied up to prevent her from masturbating in public. It’s as though madness runs in her veins. But all this dirty linen is resolutely hidden from view: these secrets are teased out slowly over the course of the book, which comprises a series of revelations each more shocking than the last until the final dénouement, the answer to the initial mystery, turns out to be almost a let-down by comparison.

By contrast, if personal and familial insanities are hidden under a thick façade of shame and hypocrisy, the more general social madness that afflicts the country as a whole is hardly a secret at all. This is Colombia sometime in the 1990s, during the heyday of Pablo Escobar and the FARC, and the effects of narcotraffic and guerrilla insurgency are visible on all sides. The highways are unsafe and the Londoños’ lowland estate has essentially been abandoned to the violence. Not that either the capital (where most of the action is set) or even the home provide much in the way of refuge: halfway through the book a huge bomb, for which Escobar happily claims responsibility, rocks the city; and one of Agustina’s most vivid childhood memories is of a security guard bleeding to death on the threshold of her family home. Meanwhile, drug profits fuel a hyperactive economy in which a decadent elite of both old and new money are criminally complicit either directly or indirectly, though laundering, loans, and generalized corruption as the state withers and Bogotá becomes site of a Hobbesian “war of all against all” (21). So Agustina’s personal breakdown, and even her family’s dysfunction, are as much as anything a symptom of long-entrenched class neuroses and devastating free-market psychoses alike. And in turn, perhaps (though Restrepo never really makes this point), the Colombian crisis is merely a symptom or effect of a madness that is as global as the international drug trade itself. This is not merely one person’s temporary estrangement; it is a social psychosis, the insanity of our times. Or better, perhaps: what Restrepo’s novel illustrates is a complex and mobile network of inter-related and mutually determining crises that collectively are not so much dysfunctions as the way the system works (as Deleuze and Guattari note), “by breaking down” (Anti-Oedipus 330). It is precisely this disarticulated but connected multiplicity that constitutes delirium.

So, how to understand this delirium? Aguilar’s quest may start out as rational, forensic, and clinical, the attempt to save–or “win back”–one particular individual, his wife, but it is soon caught up in the vortex. One sign of this is the variety of strategies that he finds himself forced to employ to describe it. In trying to map what he calls the “strange territory that is delirium,” he claims early on that he has “managed to establish two things: one, that it is by nature voracious and can swallow me up as it did her, and two, that the vertiginous rate at which it multiplies means that this is a fight against the clock and what’s more I’ve stepped in too late because I didn’t know soon enough how far the disaster had advanced” (19). Even, then, at this preliminary stage we see not only how the delirium itself has advanced–and it is always, we feel, “too late”–but also the proliferation of metaphors that it invokes. Delirium is both territory and disaster. Indeed it is also, in a martial comparison, a “mystical mania that’s invading the house” (15); both space and what comes to occupy that space. Elsewhere, Agustina’s madness is a “river” that “leaves its traces” in the diverse vessels full of water with which she sprinkles their home in repetitive acts of ritual ablution (15). And it is also a disease, as Agustina’s Aunt Sofi observes, “contagious, like the flu, and when one person in a family has it, everyone catches it in turn, there’s a chain reaction that no one can escape except those who’ve been vaccinated” (41). No wonder that Aguilar worries that he himself has caught the bug: “Could it be my fault that she’s going crazy? Or is her madness infecting me?” (78). Sofi has no doubts: “Now you’re the one who’s raving, Aguilar, that’s exactly what I mean when I say that you let the madness contaminate you” (42). More fundamentally, delirium an “excessive vibration,” something that “simmers inside with slow, hostile reverberation” (33), a set of “bubbles bursting inside her” even as it is also likened to “poisonous fish [that] wander the channels of her brain” (15). Sometimes her dislocation is taken to be the emanation of what Agustina herself calls her “naked soul” (21). Yet it is equally often seen as coming from outside and so is repeatedly compared to demonic “possession,” a word, Aguilar tells us, “which doesn’t even form part of my vocabulary since it belongs to the realm of the irrational, which doesn’t interest me in the slightest” (184).

Finally, then, the way in which language itself is disordered and dishevelled in the attempt to describe the madness is an indication that delirium is above all a linguistic disorder, a subversion of claims to referentiality or representation. Delirium is disarticulation: the taking apart of signifying elements to recompose or decompose them in patterns that are apparently random or at least ultimately incoherent. There is much play with words and narrative in this book, from the very basic elements such as names: “Agustina” herself is an anagram, just one shifted consonant away from “angustia” or “anxiety”; no wonder her obsession with crosswords, the methodical rearrangement of signifiers that gives structure without sense. More broadly and more strikingly, and as is announced in the novel’s opening epigraph that quotes Gore Vidal quoting Henry James’s warning “against the use of a mad person as central character of a narrative” (7), the novel repeatedly and consistently shifts between perspectives, points of view, and narrative voice. From Aguilar to Agustina to her grandfather to her ex-lover and shady friend, from first to second to third person violating conventional syntactic or grammatical rules, run-on sentences tumbling or circling like eddies in a river: Restrepo’s book endlessly flirts with derangement. For it is the search to define or describe, to tell a story about madness that pulls us into the flow that negates that very attempt. It is as though delirium can only be enacted or performed, always escaping any attempt at representation, forcing signification itself to become volatile, unstable, delirious.

Nunca hubo alguna vez

Carmen Naranjo, Nunca hubo alguna vez

“There Never Was a Once Upon a Time,” announces the title of Carmen Naranjo’s book of short stories. But we’re left wondering if she really believes it. Take the title story itself, a tale told (like many in the collection) by a child narrator. Here, the question of whether or not there was a “once upon a time,” a shared past that might inform the present, is up for debate from the opening lines: “There never was a once upon a time, you told me that afternoon at nearly six o’clock, and I answered: you’re a liar, there is always a once upon a time, today, yesterday, tomorrow, because time is always playing upon a time” (11). It’s not that “once upon a time” is taken for granted or given: it has to be constructed, created; “it’s inventing everything from scratch, just like it, with the audacity of someone who feels themselves to be the inventor of what is. That’s some nerve” (11). To say “once upon a time,” then, is to construct a world, and everything in it. Whoever has the keys to this phrase can open up the present as well as the past. Or so the narrator believes. But what follows is a sad little tale of a broken bicycle and a broken friendship, a bicycle who’s owner declares (now that the narrator has smashed it) that there “never was a once upon a time,” that the friendship is over, that it might as well not have existed. One logic, of affection and shared history, has been replaced by another, of material debts and (ultimately) class difference because there’s no way the narrator can every pay her (former) friend back for what she’s broken. In the crash that broke the bike and broke the two girls’ friendship is the most abrupt of transitions to adulthood. And the other girl wants to say that it was always like that; only the narrator insists that there really was a “once upon a time” in which things were different, and perhaps its trace can still be found today.

At their best, then, Naranjo’s stories, in their return to childhood and child-like logics, accept the precariousness and temporary nature of the “once upon a time,” but also seek to recuperate some of this other world and deploy it in the present. They recognize, moreover, that childhood is never fully insulated from adult concerns or issues of (say) class, race, and gender. Far from it. But, as with all writing from a child’s perspective (everything from Le petit prince to Mary Poppins), this book seeks to offer an estranged, defamiliarized view of a world that has become all too habitual, all too easily accepted by its adult inhabitants. This works better at some times than at others: here, I find the final story, “Olo,” an extended allegory of a mystical dreamland, both too derivative and too sickly sweet for my taste. But elsewhere, Naranjo’s ambivalence about the virtues of childhood and its invented past is more finely balanced and genuinely revealing.

Take for instance the collection’s third story, “Fue una vez” (“It Happened One Day”). In some ways, this is a response to the earlier story discussed above: it, too, is a story of betrayal, but this time from the point of view of the betrayer rather than the betrayed. Again, it’s a first-person narrative in which one young girl writes to another, conjuring up a dramatic moment in which everything changed. Here, the plot (such as it is) turns around a book of cuttings or clippings that the other girl has compiled, though which she narrates her life as she imagines it will unfold: “dressed in a uniform with two long braids and straight hair, dressed as a bride with your white dress and a train covered in ruffles [. . .] your whole life in that collection of clippings” (29). The narrator asks why and how the image could change so dramatically from stage to stage, and gets the response that “it’s for that that you were a woman, and that women could fix themselves up to appear totally different depending on the circumstances” (29). What’s more, the narrator’s interlocutor continues, don’t you see this all the time? Her mother “changes when she has visitors [. . .]. She wears that house coat she saves for special occasions, and haven’t you noticed how she puts on her make-up to go shopping and powders her nose when it’s time to go to the doctor?” (30). This is an initiation into femininity as construction, as an empowered choice to change appearances, to appropriate images from the mass media and elsewhere. Of course, we know that this so-called empowerment has its limits, that no doubt some have more resources to act out some performances rather than others. Perhaps this is the reason, if it is not the sheer shock of this glimpse into an adulthood of mimicry and simulacra, that provokes the narrator to go through the book when her friend is not looking, to seek out its most secret and intimate pages (the last ones, of Snow White in her coffin and then a host of angels) and go tell her father all about it. Yet, having shattered these confidences and seemingly brought everything to light, the narrator’s last words are that she thinks that she, too, needs “to make my own album of cut-outs to see how I want to be from now on” (30). So the rupture, the broken friendship, turns out to be rite of initiation that ensures the continuance of strategies of femininity passed on from one child to another.

So these are not particularly complex stories–as befits the possibility that they are addressed perhaps to adolescents themselves. Except that, when you are stuck in it, adolescence and everything that surrounds the move from childhood to (something like) adulthood always seems incredibly complex and full of drastic ups and downs. Naranjo’s stories nicely reflect that sense of drama, the notion that every day could be the end of the world, and portrays it with a light hand that downplays its solipsistic excesses while recognizing that, yes, in fact, in part it is indeed the end of a world that’s at stake.

Latin American Women Writers

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In conjunction with a course I’m teaching on the topic, herewith a collection of posts on Latin American women writers:

La nave de los locos II

Cristina Peri Rossi, La nave de los locos

Just under halfway through Cristina Peri Rossi’s La nave de los locos it seems for a while as though the various voyages that comprise the book may be coming to an end. The book’s main character, X, finds himself on “an island, in M., full of tropical vegetation [. . .]. The town at which X arrived had a mystical name: Pueblo de Dios” (74). Indeed, this verdant tropical paradise is a place where plenty of former wanderers end up: the astronaut, Gordon, for instance, who has voyaged to the moon and now “on earth [. . .] feel[s] lost” (109). As X notes in a conversation with Gordon, “We are all exiles from something or someone. [. . .] In reality, that’s man’s true condition” (106). But Pueblo de Dios (God’s Town or God’s People) would seem to be a place where all such exiles can gather and feel (almost) at home, thanks to the hospitality of other exiles, and even of the local animals. When X is first there a puppy comes up to him and “X felt very grateful; in all his voyages he had arrived as various cities and countries, but nobody had ever come out to greet him, or smiled with satisfaction at the foreigner” (75). This a place where the language spoken is “a combination of odd tongues, which taken together make up a sentence and a prayer” (97). And it is here where X settles down as part of a strange but apparently harmonious little group: Morris, a writer and collector of maps, pipes, and old books; Graciela, a young woman whom X exalts idealistically and nostalgically as an uncontaminated being from an epoch “before there was pollution [. . .] before there was plastic, orthopedics, petrol, and yachts” (89); and, to complete the menagerie, there is Stanley, the dog, and Felix, a talking parrot (115).

But Pueblo de Dios turns out to offer only a brief intermission in the group’s incessant wanderings. Soon enough a letter comes from “the metropolis or the Great Navel,” instructing Morris to leave for the sake of his own, somewhat unspecified, interests that turn out to concern the publication of his book. Off he goes, and the community starts to unravel.

In the metropolis, then, Morris visits his potential publisher: Albion Press, whose offices are the very opposite of the island idyll. He has to pass along corridors lined with windows through which the workers can be seen at their desks: “some lifted their heads, expressionless, barely looked at him, and went on with their work” (125). “That’s how it always is,” we’re told, “in the Great Navel: people find themselves so absorbed that you can’t interrupt them for anything at all” (125). This is a world of commodities and ceaseless labour, dull and disciplined, and as such a strange place to come to talk about a creative endeavor such as literature. Indeed, Morris’s interactions with his editor are dispiriting to say the least: a woman whose face lacks all expression, whose voice lacks all tone, and whose talk is all of brutal efficiency, hands him a form to fill in. Morris feels, in almost Kafkaesque manner, as though he must have committed some unknown and unpardonable crime. For “the law, the young woman, the credit agency, the universe are not in the business of pardons” (126). And yet, even in this unforgiving environment, some disturbance can arise. For the form fails to capture or do justice to Morris’s book, and a conversation ensues…

“Which of these elements predominates in the work,” the form asks, “Action? Sex? Politics?” (128). Morris at first seems to take this question the wrong way, mistaking sexual activity for sexual difference: “When it comes to sex,” he inquires of the editor, “Is there one sex that is, shall we say, privileged over the other?” But it turns out that this is precisely what the form means, or at least the editor is happy to play along: “In general terms,” she responds, “I can tell you that a work of the feminine sex has few chances of success [. . .]. We publish very few works of the feminine sex” (128). What unfolds then is a discussion about sex, gender, and gendering. And while it is here applied to books, one might imagine that the same issues are at work in any attempt to fix or assign gender. Morris tries to claim that his book is “androgynous.” But for the editor this won’t do: “There are doctors for that,” she observes, adding that “You can put that your work is masculine. That way they’ll take a look at it at least. In some cases it’s better to fake it. . .” (129). Morris protests: “But won’t I be betraying the deep essence, the true nature of the thing, attributing to it a sex that it doesn’t have?” No, the editor replies, now

much friendlier, “Everyone gives themselves a sex, don’t they? We spend our lives affirming it. [. . .] Our entire lives trying to convince everyone else, and ourselves, that we have a sex, with its own identity. [. . .].” “Yes,” said Morris, “It’s a neurotic preoccupation [. . .].” “Exactly. The ambition of sex is neurotic. We spend our lives with that compulsion. But anyhow, given that those are the rules of the game, let’s leave it at that. Your work, from now on, is of masculine sex. (128-129)

Here, then, it’s the editor who seems to see things more clearly. It appears that, at least in her case, the problems of the Great Navel have nothing to do with ideology: she sees how things are, and the ridiculousness of sexual difference premised on supposed essences, but she also reckons that these are the rules of the game and cynically goes along with them. Morris’s Romanticism–his concerns about betraying the “essence” of his work–is out of place.

Perhaps this is why Morris (and subsequently both X and Graciela) have to be displaced, yet again, from the Island. Pueblo de Dios is a respite, but it offers what is ultimately only an illusory sense of order and harmony, much like the tapestry at Girona. The Great Navel, the metropolis, may not be all it claims to be. But it also debunks the pretensions to oneness and coherence to which the island’s exiles cling. In the end, as X also later finds, the answers (if answers there be) to the questions that preoccupy us and disturb our dreams are more likely to be found in the city, with its many layers of simulation, mimicry, cynicism, and artifice, not in some tropical utopia.