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 One logic, of affection and shared history, has been replaced by another, of material debts and (ultimately) class difference because there’s no way the narrator can every pay her (former) friend back for what she’s broken.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