Capital Fictions

Capital Fictions

Compare two snippets of prose. First: “Secluded by the shade of gauze and lace, the warm light of the lamp fell in a circle over the crimson velvet of the tablecloth [and] lit up the three china cups…” Second: “The felt drapery embroidered with gold fell over a sheer curtain, filtering the light absorbed by the deep tone of the furniture’s brocade, the opaque wood of the piano…” Which is the opening of a modernist novel, and which comes from an advertisement for a nineteenth-century luxury goods store? In fact, the second is the advert, and the first is the novel, but it is hard to tell between them because the novel (like the advert) revels in the objects that it is describing, highlighting their interplay of textures in a vaguely mysterious interior space. And the advert (like the novel) gives life to these objects by establishing and narrating the relations between them so as to create, as Ericka Beckman notes in Capital Fictions: The Literature of Latin America’s Export Age, “an ambient effect that is more powerful than any one of its single elements” (64).

It so happens that novel and advertisement alike have the same author: the Colombian José Asunción Silva, who was both “a key proponent of art for art’s sake” and “a tireless promoter of luxury import consumption”; both a novelist and poet and a merchant “selling the most sumptuous goods to an elite enriched by burgeoning coffee exports” (61). But Silva’s business did not prosper. Heavily indebted, ultimately he committed suicide, at the age of thirty-one: beside his body, a wallet containing his last ten-peso note. The novel quoted above, De sobremesa (After-Dinner Conversation), was published only after his death.

For many, this tragic fate of the poet laid low by bankruptcy is understood in terms of a tension if not contradiction between economics and art. Quite the contrary, says Beckman. Silva’s life and death, and his work as writer of literary and economic fictions alike, demonstrate her fundamental point that “the story of literature [. . .] is wrapped up in the story of economics, even–especially–when it claims the contrary” (128). Indeed, it is the assertion of a fundamental breach between art and finance that is the most basic fiction here, providing art with the consoling thought that it is untainted by filthy lucre, and giving finance the equally comforting notion that it is driven by reason alone.

In a final irony, the disavowed collusion between culture and currency becomes visible again when the Bank of Colombia picks none other than Silva to illustrate its five-thousand-peso note in 1996, the hundredth anniversary of his death. The poet’s bearded, slightly wistful visage is featured on the front; on the back, an urn on which his one of his more famous odes, “Nocturno,” is inscribed. “Money and art are separated,” Beckman argues, “so that they might come together in a stabilized relation on the banknote” (156). But this stability is belied not only by the always slippery signifier of the written word, but also by the long and cyclical history of financial speculation and disaster, economic boom and bust, for which Silva’s own suicide provides still further testament.

Beckman’s fine and fascinating book traces the complex complicities between fiction and finance in Latin America’s “export age” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It examines the “export reverie” of texts that preached economic progress, conjuring up “liberal fantasies” that had real effects in “creating the conditions of possibility under which social and natural landscapes might be altered” (20) to bring plantations and railways, mines and music halls to the region. It proceeds with a critique of modernismo and its “import catalogues” whereby European luxury goods are praised for their (supposedly) intrinsic beauty, but mystified as a site of refuge from the ordinary and everyday. Beckman suggests that (ironically enough) a rather prosaic commodity fetishism underlies the modernistas’ claims to poetic autonomy. The book then turns to the stock market fictions that emerge in the wake of financial turbulence and the novels of decadence and bankruptcy that follow on. Perhaps the most interesting chapter is the final one, which comprises a reading of José Eustasio Rivera’s classic La vorágine (The Vortex) as a narrative of resource extraction that tests the limits of aesthetic and economic representation.

Beckman argues for the resonances between the late nineteenth century and the present. We see today for instance “a resurgence of export-elite opulence” premised on booms in commodities such as narcotics and a re-intensified mining and extractive sector. I am not sure that literature has quite the same function these days (though TV and YouTube offer their own, updated import catalogues). Does anyone really believe in liberal versions of progress these days, or is the point that we are told there is simply no alternative? And in fact I wonder how much belief was really at issue even a hundred years ago. But for the most part, Beckman’s insights are convincing, her readings are compelling, and her writing commendably clear.