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 One logic, of affection and shared history, has been replaced by another, of material debts and (ultimately) class difference because there’s no way the narrator can every pay her (former) friend back for what she’s broken.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


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.

La nave de los locos I

Cristina Peri Rossi, La nave de los locos

The cover of Cristina Peri Rossi’s La nave de los locos features an image by the German/American artist Jan Balet. It’s a rather austere composition, of a small and apparently over-loaded rowing boat carrying three women, one middle-aged man, and a child, plus a younger man who has hold of the oars. Fortunately, perhaps, for all concerned, the surface of the water itself is smooth as glass, and two of the women are standing up in the tiny boat. But as a result, the arrangement strangely lacks almost all movement: the figures awkwardly stare out at the viewer as though from a formal portrait. Moreover, the composition is also practically devoid of colour: water and sky merge in a murky haze of grey, and all the adult figures are head-to-toe in black (the women, with long-sleeved and high-necked dresses plus extravagant featured hats), as though they were in mourning. The child, meanwhile, is dressed in white, but this only serves to accentuate her enormous dark eyes, which seem to be less organs of sight than black holes sunk deep into her face. As a whole, the picture’s ambience is macabre and disturbing. This is no happy family outing, but perhaps a snapshot of the Victorian bourgeoisie slowly crossing the Styx to some prim and proper Hades.

The choice of Balet’s painting for the book’s cover brings out some of the themes contained within: the notion of forced voyages, for instance, or of melancholy resignation and shared solitudes. But in fact the image to which the text itself obsessively returns is very different: it is the medieval “Tapesty of Creation” that can be found in the Museum of the Cathedral of Girona. And though almost a millennium of history has done its work to degrade the fabric and the threads that run though it, it is clear that the tapestry was originally a riot of colour: even now the reds and greens and burnished golds stand out. For this is an account of Genesis, not death: a celebration of God’s creation and of the diversity and order that coexist in the world he brought into being. A central panel depicts the Garden of Eden with all the beasts and birds that inhabited it. Around the edges are vignettes of the months and the seasons and the activities characteristics of the various phases of the agricultural year. What is more, and in contrast to the uncanny sense of disquiet and unease that Balet’s image imparts, in the Girona tapestry (as the book puts it) “everything is so disposed such that man should feel in perfect harmony, consubstantial, integrated into the universe, surrounded by creatures both fantastic and real” (20).

Tapestry of the Creation

Descriptions of the tapestry run through the book and seem to offer some key to its structure and meaning. Book and image alike, for instance, offer less of a linear narrative (though there are moments or aspects of linearity, such as the creation story itself and the progression through the year) and more of a patchwork or mosaic of impressions and episodes. They suggest, moreover, that real fragmentation–in the tapestry’s case, the fact that much of the original is now missing–can find compensation in the mind of the active reader or viewer. As the book puts it of the medieval needlework, its “structure [is] so perfect and geometrical, so verifiable that even with almost half of it missing, it is possible to reconstruct the whole, if not on the cathedral wall then within a frame of the mind’s devising” (21). In similar vein, at a number of points Peri Rossi’s book challenges the reader to look for hidden points of order that might help give sense to what is otherwise a fragmentary and sometimes confusing narrative. For instance, the narrator invites “the reader to play a very entertaining game” of figuring out “the true name of the cities evoked” in the description of the principal character’s restless wanderings (37). Indeed, the character himself goes by the name of “X,” as though hinting towards some kind of mystery that the reader might also ultimately solve: X marks the spot of the buried treasure that would be the “perfect harmony” and “perfectly intelligible discourse” (20, 21) that the book claims the tapestry promises the committed viewer.

And yet, despite the fact that the idea (or dream) of harmony runs as a leitmotif throughout the book’s disparate parts, in practice there is very little of it to be seen. X himself, for example, is at first sight at least very far from being “integrated into the universe.” Or if he is, then this is a universe characterized more by chance encounters and random violence than by beneficent order. He tries to assert some kind of logic and familiarity to his unsettled drifting by clinging to certain habits of cultural consumption: always buying the same books in each new city he finds himself in, for example. But he is constantly led astray, not least by the women that he meet who can seem at times to be all too reminiscent of the Biblical Eve who likewise turned out to be a disruptive force within the idyll that was Eden. And yet Peri Rossi refuses to condemn Eve (even as she will catalogue the ways in which young children habitually repeat the accusations that it is she who is responsible for mankind’s downfall).

In the end, La nave de los locos is rather ambivalent about the so-called harmony that an image such as the Girona Tapestry professes. After all, as a footnote observes, such harmony depends on violence in that “it presupposes the destruction of the real elements that oppose it, and for that reason it is almost always symbolic” (20). This is where a gap opens up between symbolic representation and the real. And X, for all that he sometimes seems–from his (missing) name onwards–to be pure symbol, is ultimately for good or ill condemned to live in the universe of the real. It might be nice to live in the eternal present (or eternal past) of the tapestry’s cyclical, God-ordained symmetry, but in fact we are historical beings, and history’s revenge on such dreams of symmetry can be seen in its gradual degradation, its frayed edges, and the dimming of the colours so that they end up rather closer to Balet’s drained greys than the twelfth-century artisans would have hoped.

La hora de la estrella

Clarice Lispector, La hora de la estrella

Clarice Lispector’s A hora da estrela (La hora de la estrella / The Hour of the Star) begins and ends with an affirmation: “All the world began with a yes” (11); “It’s strawberry season. Yes.” (96). But the two yeses are quite distinct. The first, at least in appearance, is quite profound: it is the story of cosmic genesis, a quasi-Biblical assertion of universality. The second, by contrast, seems to be much more insubstantial: the gourmand’s note about a fruit that happens to be available. Indeed, given what has taken place in the course of the novel and the ninety pages that separate these two lines, the second yes is if anything flippant or disingenuous. For we have just seen the book’s heroine, Macabéa, an impoverished, sickly, and practically friendless young woman immigrant from the countryside to Rio de Janeiro, be run over and senselessly die on a darkened city street. In this context, to lick one’s lips and head off for a punnet of strawberries and cream is evidence of a lack of compassion or even responsibility. And yet it is the same voice, the same narrator, who provides us with both affirmations. And indeed, beyond being merely a tale of life and death in urban Brazil, this novel is also very much concerned with the affects and debts that authors project onto their writing and their readers, and that readers in turn bear towards both the book and the world.

So alongside and undercutting the affirmations are a series of questions and anxieties. This is an author who often does not seem all that sure of himself. For instance, before the book proper begins there is a “Dedication by the author” in which he reveals that “what trips up my life is writing” (8), and following which is a series of alternative titles for the book itself: “The Hour of the Star,” but also “It’s All My Fault,” “I Can’t Do Anything,” and “Cheap Tearjerker” (9). It’s as though it were up to the reader to be the final judge as to what the book should really be called, or as to whether the author has made the right decisions. Indeed, throughout, he turns to us to explain and justify himself where he can, and to throw himself on our mercy where he can’t or won’t. Even down to the issue of his heroine’s death, he is keen to stress his limits, his powerlessness: “Is perhaps Macabea going to die? How would I know?” (90). And when something does happen, his response–like Macabéa’s own resigned view of the world–is that that’s just the way things are. That’s fate, that’s (like the accident itself that mows Macabéa down) all part of life’s game of chance. So why, then, talk of blame at all? “Who am I,” the author asks, “to punish the guilty? The worst of it is that you have to forgive them. You have to get to such a point of nothingness that it’s a matter of indifference whether or not you love the criminal who kills you” (90). And if this is the lesson of the book, then it’s perhaps only Macabea herself who ever arrives at this point of bliss, such that she can forgive both the driver who kills her and the author who (for all his denials) has her killed.

Meanwhile, all this talk of the author is in an important way seriously misleading. For however self-aware he may be about his role as a writer, what the author never seems fully to realize is that he, too, is but another character. For the real author of La hora de la estrella is, of course, Clarice Lispector, who makes herself known only fleetingly: with the subtitle to the author’s dedication, “In truth [en verdad], Clarice Lispector” (7), and with a signature inserted in the list of potential, but discarded, titles for the novel. And yet even these gestures of showing the author’s hand are themselves misleading. For the author of the dedication is not “in truth” Lispector in that there is no reason why we should expect to believe that this is her own voice any more than we can believe her stand-in, to whom she has given the name of Rodrigo S. M. And just the same goes for her as goes for Rodrigo when he asks himself “Or am I not an actor? In truth [en verdad] I’m more of an actor because with only one way to punctuate, I juggle with intonation and force another’s breathing to accompany my text” (24). Lispector, too, can do no more than juggle with the limits imposed upon her by grammar and writing. And the signature she gives us, as though it were the proof of some legal claim to the text, the trace that confirms the contract made with the reader, is but a mass-produced image, identical on every copy sold. Language and the market together work to erase individuality; and yet they are also the tools with which we endlessly try to distinguish ourselves.

Macabéa, in turn, is also a creature and victim of these same forces, neither more or less than Rodrigo S. M. or Clarice Lispector, though her existence is rather more precarious than that of either the presumed authors. One sign of this is that she is blessed only with a first name, and even that is withheld until almost halfway through the book. The man that becomes briefly her boyfriend, who asks her for her name and so allows it be revealed to the reader, is endlessly fretting about how to make a name for himself. He does so literally as he declares that he is “Olímpico de Jesús Moreira Chaves” when in fact “all he had for a surname was Jesús, the surname given to those without a father” (49). Likewise, Olímpico is keen to feign knowledge and mastery of language in general, blustering or brushing Macabéa off when she comes to him with new words that she has heard on the radio or elsewhere: “What does ‘culture’ mean? –Culture is culture, he continued sulkily. [. . .] ‘What does ‘per capita income’ mean? –Oh, that’s easy, it’s something for doctors” (55). Macabéa, on the other hand, is often literal-minded in her approach to language. “Look, Macabéa,” Olímpico says to her at one point. “What is there to look at?” she responds. “No, my God, no, there’s a ‘Look’ that has to do with looking and a ‘Look’ that’s when you want someone to listen to you. Are you listening to me?” (60). Everywhere, even in the simplest of interjections, language threatens to trip up authors and characters alike. Meanwhile, Macabéa is equally a creature of the market: almost literally so, in that her diet apparently consists entirely of hot dogs and Coca Cola. Likewise, her dream comes directly from mass culture: to be a film star, like Marilyn Monroe. This is the “hour of the star,” the hour of one’s death in which “you become like a blazing cinema star, it’s everyone’s moment of glory” (31).

When, ultimately, Macabéa ends up dying on the roadside, hit (ironically or appropriately enough) by a yellow Mercedes whose driver doesn’t bother to stop to see the damage he’s caused, it’s not immediately clear that this is the longed-for hour of the star. But Lispector (or Rodrigro S. M.) suggests that it’s only in this moment that Macabéa is born, “born for death’s embrace” (93). And it’s only, lying there, that she becomes woman. But this is a strange kind of becoming: neither subject nor object (for in truth in most of her short life, she’s never been either), the last words we hear her say, “clearly and distinctly,” is the phrase “And as for the future” (94). This is a future that seems closed off to her, as much as it had ever been, except that she has been immortalized, however reluctantly, by the author(s) whose frame of reference she forever escapes. Yes.

Wikipedia’s Women Problem

We Can Edit

There’s much to say about women and Wikipedia… for instance, about the so-called “gender gap” that (it is said) can be seen both among the encyclopedia’s editors, who are overwhelmingly male, as well as in the articles themselves, which tend to treat topics historically coded as male at greater length and with more seriousness than they cover topics associated with women.

Indeed, a lot has been written about the topic, but one of the smartest commentators on these issues was Adrianne Wadewitz: see her HASTACS blog, and entries such as “Wikipedia’s gender gap and the complicated reality of systemic gender bias”.

Wadewitz mentions what she calls “categorygate,” the furor sparked by Amanda Filipacchi’s New York Times Op-Ed: “Wikipedia’s Sexism Towards Women Novelists”. See also James Gleick’s article for the New York Review of Books blog: “Wikipedia’s Women Problem”.

In this context, it’s worth noting that though there are now (roughly parallel) categories for (say) women novelists and male novelists on the English Wikipedia, this is not the case on the Spanish Wikipedia. Here (for instance) the category escritoras is simply a subset of the broader category escritores, and there is no corresponding division of “escritores masculinos.”

This disparity between the treatment of (women) writers on the two Wikipedias is, of course, partly for linguistic reasons, stemming from differences between English and Spanish. But only partly. And in any case, why should such different ways of encoding gendered identities within language remain sacrosanct?

Interview in

Jon Beasley-Murray

I was interviewed by Amador Fernández-Savater for Jon Beasley-Murray: “La clave del cambio social no es la ideología, sino los cuerpos, los afectos y los hábitos”. An extract:

12- Los movimientos políticos que te interesan son “enigmáticos, invisibles, misteriosos y fuera de lugar”. No representan ni se dejan representar. Funcionan de alguna manera como los propios afectos: opacos y sin discurso articulado, sin demanda ni proyecto. Pero ese tipo de fuerza, ¿puede ser algo más que destituyente? ¿Puede convertirse también en un poder constituyente, creador de instituciones que organicen nuestra vida cotidiana?

Jon Beasley-Murray. ¡Son muchos los movimientos políticos que me interesan! O, en otras palabras, son muchos (¿todos?) los que tienen su costado enigmático, invisible, misterioso y fuera de lugar. Para mí, no se trata de escoger los movimientos que te gustan y apostar todo en ellos, como si se tratase de una carrera de caballos. Los movimientos son procesos de experimentación y los resultados nunca se pueden predecir ¡ni prevenir! Esa experimentación sin garantías es la esencia de la política, de otro modo no estamos hablando de política, sino de implementación de planes técnicos. En cada caso, en cada momento, está presente la posibilidad de ambivalencia, de error, de desastre.

No vamos a ninguna parte sin reconocer esa opacidad inherente e inevitable de la política. Mejor afirmarla que negarla o intentar eliminarla. Sobre todo, porque es desde ese lado oscuro que emerge cualquier posibilidad de lo nuevo, de la creación. Así que lo veo todo al revés de como lo plantea tu pregunta: lo que es claro, visible, ordenado, previsible y cognoscible me parece que nunca puede ser constituyente, porque (para bien o para mal) es pura repetición de lo mismo.

Pero bueno, algo que aprendemos del hábito es que la repetición de lo mismo es otra ilusión: aún dentro de las repeticiones más regulares, algo se escapa, entra siempre la opacidad y el enigma. Y es por esto que debemos atender a estos momentos, de desviación y deriva, por sutiles y (casi) invisibles que sean.

13- Si no es la toma del poder, ¿qué sería un éxito, un logro, una victoria para los movimientos que te interesan?

Jon Beasley-Murray. La creatividad, la creación, la invención de nuevas formas de vivir; la expansión de lo común, de la comunidad. Un éxito nunca acabado, por supuesto; una victoria siempre por venir. O, en palabras del marqués de Sade, supuestamente en reacción a la Revolución Francesa: encore un effort si vous voulez être vraiment républicains! (todavía un esfuerzo si queréis ser verdaderamente republicanos)

There should be a second piece before long, with a focus on corruption. In the meantime, there’s quite a lively discussion of this one, not only in the comments on, but also on a page dedicated to Podemos on Reddit.