Roa Bastosmachine

garcia_marquez_jorge_edwards_Vargas_llosa_donoso_y_mu_oz_suaz

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!

Read more… (.pdf file)

Advertisements

El lugar sin límites

José Donoso, El lugar sin límites

For some reason, José Donoso’s work seems particularly susceptible to a reading as national allegory. Perhaps it’s the obsession with houses: Casa de campo (A House in the Country), for instance, as (in Monika Kaup’s words) “an allegorical novel about Latin American history and culture in general and Chile’s national trauma [. . .] in particular” (“Postdictatorsahip Allegory and Neobaroque Disillusionment” 92). Likewise, then, in her introduction to El lugar sin límites (translated into English as Hell Has No Limits), Selena Millares argues that Donoso is “a man of houses” and that “the house encapsulates and represents an entire society and the history that underpins it, just like a cell speaks of the human organism to which it belongs” (74). But the biological metaphor is misleading: it is less the cell itself than its DNA that tells us about the person of which it is a part, and it tells us little if anything about that person’s history. Rather, houses are only like cells in so far as they are part of a larger and more complex assemblage, and in that they may well be affected by changes in the broader environment, if perhaps in unequal and unpredictable ways.

The houses that feature in El lugar sin límites include El Olivo, the farmhouse of local landowner and politician, Alejandro Cruz, and then the various properties that constitute Estación El Olivo, the hamlet that is both dependent upon and threatened by the estate whose name it shares. The village was established to service the needs of Cruz’s vineyards, but the coopers who made his barrels have mostly moved out, and the railway station is practically unused. Everything travels along the new highway, which bypassed the settlement and condemned it to what seems like terminal decline. All that remains are a church and a small brothel that has seen better days. The villagers’ one hope is the promise that electricity will come to Estación El Olivo. Cruz tells them that he’s putting pressure on the authorities to hook them up to the national grid. For the brothel’s part-owner, a young woman known as the “Japonesita,” with the coming of electric power everything would change: “the entire town would come back to life with electricity.” Above all, she would immediately swap her hand-cranked Victrola record player with a flash new Wurlitzer jukebox: “As soon as they brought electricity to the town she’d buy a Wurlitzer. Immediately. [. . .] The most colourful one, the one with a beach scene showing palm trees by a turquoise sea, the biggest machine of the lot” (136-137).

Note that this is a not a case of some kind of organic community faced with the coming of modernity, or of nature replaced by technology. El Olivo is an outgrowth of agribusiness from the start. If this is a village in ruins, these are capitalist ruins, the ruins of modernity itself. And there is nothing particularly natural here: the vines are laid out in geometric patterns, fully part of a social network from the start. Rather, what’s at stake is the replacement of one machine by another: turntable by jukebox, train by truck, while un-needed equipment is cast aside, like the “antediluvian threshing machine” left rusting by the railway track (117).

But one never knows when an outmoded or neglected machine might come in handy again. For the same word that the Japonesita uses of the Wurlitzer, “aparato” or apparatus, is also the term used by her co-owner, a flamboyant transvestite who goes by the name of “Manuela,” when referring to his (her) penis: “This piece of kit [este aparato] is no use to me except to go pee” (168). And it turns out that Manuela’s apparatus is not only surprisingly large (drawing comments such as “What a donkey!” and “Look how well equipped he is” [168]) but also in full working order. For the Japonesita is in fact Manuela’s daughter, offspring of a bet that landlord Cruz made to the brothel’s previous Madam that she couldn’t arouse him, couldn’t put his equipment to work. Riding on the bet was ownership of the brothel itself, and Manuela agreed to go through with the indignity of being publicly (if briefly) brought back into the supposed sexual norm with the understanding that the property would be split between the two of them. So the house is dependent on well-functioning machinery in more ways than one: Manuela’s apparatus won him his share in it, but for lack of power it’s left lifeless when the Victrola finally breaks: “They no longer make parts for this type of machine [esta clase de aparatos]” (211). Still, the Japonesita is confident she can find a replacement in a second-hand shop in the city. Alongside the trade in novelty and the latest gadget is a parallel economy of refitting or repurposing the ruined detritus discarded along the way.

And it is in this spirit of bricolage and making-do that Donoso puts his (admittedly somewhat disillusioned) faith: in the kids who turn the urine-stained thresher into their playground, in Manuela’s piecing together her ripped rags into a red dress that may once again perhaps seduce even the most boorish of the locals, however briefly and however tragic the final outcome. As the Japonesita reflects, it’s happened before, that after one of his escapades Manuela has come back “with a black eye or a couple of broken ribs after the men, roaming drunks, have beaten him up for being a queer. What am I to worry about? Like a cat, he has nine lives” (214). Grit in the machinery of capitalist development, a cobbled-together apparatus or assemblage of patched rags and reworked ruins, the way of life presented in El lugar sin límites incarnates a corrosion neither fully within nor fully outside of modernity’s grand narrative. And for the same reason, it makes a mockery of the restricted spatiality of houses or households: it makes them spaces without limits.

Boom!

garcia_marquez_jorge_edwards_Vargas_llosa_donoso_y_mu_oz_suaz

I’m currently teaching a course on the Latin American Boom (comments on that site are welcome), and I thought I’d gather together the posts I’m writing for that course, as well as others I’ve written on Boom authors in the past:

See also a list of my posts on José María Arguedas.

La ciudad y los perros

Mario Vargas Llosa, La ciudad y los perros

Mario Vargas Llosa’s first published novel, La ciudad y los perros, ends with something of a twist, as we discover that one of the book’s central characters is also one of its principal narrators, a boy who’s been telling us a fairly sad but quite sweet tale about his love for a young girl who lives near him. This comes as a shock because when he is portrayed by others, it is as the ringleader and tough guy of a student gang at Lima’s Leoncio Prado Military Academy, where much of the novel is set. Fully deserving his self-appointed nickname of “the Jaguar,” there he is uncompromising and absolutely unsentimental, quick to jump on the slightest weakness or avenge any slight or infraction. He may well have gone so far as to murder a classmate whom he suspects of snitching. As another gang member puts it, a guy who could be the Jaguar’s best friend if only he had friends rather than merely henchmen and enemies: “Nothing surprises me about the Jaguar, I knew he has no feelings” (317). Hence the surprise indeed when we discover that this hard-bitten delinquent is in fact a closet romantic, whose voice we’d heard but hardly recognized. How much do we, or anyone else, know him after all? We never even discover his real name.

In part, Vargas Llosa is playing with the basic illusion that we can know any character in literature, or even that there are characters to be known. All we have are textual effects. The Jaguar has no “real” name, because he doesn’t exist outside of a text in which any such name is perpetually with-held. Or to put this another way: the Jaguar’s function in the novel is to be a character whose “real” name can only be the subject of conjecture. That’s how the character was written, and if we were to be given his name, it would be less a question of our knowing more about him (as though he really existed, outside the text) than of his becoming a different character with some other function. Likewise, the point is less that we should try to reconcile the apparent divergences between the Jaguar as he is portrayed by others in the Academy, and the character as he is made to reveal himself through first-person narration. It is more that we shouldn’t really be expecting consistency in the first place. The notion of character as a consistent set of attributes and dispositions that endures over time and space is itself a literary fiction, a narrative device.

To put it yet another way: the kind of fractured, non-linear, distributed narration employed by a book such as La ciudad y los perros, with its abrupt shifts of style, point of view, location, and temporality, makes us question the forms of subjectivity that other modes of literary fiction (realism or costumbrismo, for instance) had presented as natural or self-evident. The characters inscribed in Vargas Llosa’s novel are both excessive and elusive: we know too much about them, and find this excessiveness untidy and ambivalent; and yet we also realize that we can never really know them, that they do not exist to be known. In a novel that is obsessed with faces (and above all with “saving” face), we are reminded that neither the Jaguar nor anyone else in the book has a face unless the narrative deigns to describe it. Which is of course how it can get away with its long-delayed twist: the Jaguar is never given a face, so we are unable to recognize that the same character spans two sections of the text. Again, we are reminded of what is left out of the narrative. Or rather, once more, it is not so much that the Jaguar has a face that is simply never shown to us; his facelessness is a constitutive characteristic of his inscription on the page.

All this suggests perhaps other modes of subjectivity, other ways of conceiving the self or selves. An inconsistent, self-contradictory, and faceless self. For all selves are fictions of one sort or another, and we could imagine the effects of different narrative strategies on the construction and presentation of the self. In a fight near the end of the book (a strange, wordless struggle between two of the schoolboy cadets), the Jaguar mutilates the face of one of his classmates: “He’s destroyed his face,” an observer says, “I don’t understand” (382). But it may be that this is the Jaguar’s function more generally (the “jaguar effect,” if you like): an assault on all our faces; a violent desecration of outmoded notions of the subject.