La traición de Rita Hayworth

Manuel Puig, La traición de Rita Hayworth

At first sight, Manuel Puig’s La traición de Rita Hayworth seems to stand out for its gaps, for what it lacks. It has, for instance, no plot or narrator, at least in any conventional sense. For many critics, it has no protagonist. It consists merely of a series of texts, more or less connected but written from different perspectives and often in very different styles, that span fifteen years (from 1933 to 1948) in the life of a loose community in a small town on the Argentine Pampa. With each chapter we leap a year or so (sometimes, more, sometimes less) and are propelled into the concerns and obsessions of a new character or series of characters. Little attempt is made to “fill in the blanks” of what might come between these periodic bulletins from or about the town of Coronel Vallejos and its inhabitants. In one chapter (the fourth), the gaps are quite explicitly woven into the text itself, as we are presented with a “dialogue” between two characters, but only given one side of the exchange. At best, then, it may appear that we have little more than an approximation to the “real story,” whatever that may be, or even to a story at all. As such, in a book that (as its title suggests) is often preoccupied by the cinema, our experience as readers is much like that of someone who has not seen a film and has to have the plot described to them. This book is littered with such descriptions, which we gradually suspect are at times highly tendentious and far removed from the real thing; yet another gap opens up, between the description and the thing itself. But then how “real” is a movie, anyway? This novel puts that question center-stage.

But what is important here are ultimately not the gaps or the absences. Or rather, each gap is only the site of a new production or creation. So retelling a movie’s plot is the chance to construct a new narrative, a new version more fitted to the teller or the listener’s life and situation. Likewise, why see the multiple shifts of perspective in terms of the information that is skipped over or lost? In fact, they’re part of a drive to provide always more: more perspectives, more styles, more genres, more possibilities or actualizations of a consistent set of problematics. It’s in this sense that Linda Craig can point out that La traición is “a novel of supplementarity” (Juan Carlos Onetti, Manuel Puig, and Luisa Valenzuela: Marginality and Gender 72). Her prime example is the book’s logic of naming: just about every character has more than one moniker, their “given name” (e.g. José L Casals) plus a nickname (Toto). Likewise, “Rita Hayworth” was originally Margarita Carmen Cansino, her Hispanic heritage erased (but not quite) to make her a global star. The supplement is always political, potentially subversive, and Craig quotes Derrida’s definition of it as “the sign which replaces the center, with supplements it, taking the center’s place in its absence” (qtd. 71). Of course, precisely such relations between center and periphery are at the novel’s heart: General Vallejos and then Merlo (the desolate one-horse town where Toto goes to college) are both on the periphery compared to the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires; not even the radio, Toto’s piano teacher complains, reaches her out on the pampa. But Argentina as a whole is in turn itself on the periphery compared to the sights and sounds of global culture transmitted by machinery of film. And the novel’s various characters comment on the distance between their own lives and what they see on the silver screen, but more importantly they also construct connections between the two worlds: and in translating their circumstances into the vocabulary of the cinema, they produce a second version of their own lives, a supplement that complicates (and to some extent undoes) the entire dichotomy of center and periphery.

The real fear here is not so much that these Argentine lives somehow fall short of the models disseminated by Hollywood mass culture. The real fear is not distance but identity, resemblance, as is indicated by Toto’s abashed admission that a photo he shows his piano teacher depicts someone he’s told he resembles, and that “on getting to fifth grade I’m going to be like him” (306). This is the desultory predictability of social reproduction. But mass culture promises a way out, an alternative, or at least the chance to dream. What’s at stake in these people’s relationship to the cinema is not mimicry but betrayal, though here the novel’s translated title, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth is misleading: it’s not so much that the Argentine spectator is “betrayed” by the sirens of the silver screen, though a case can be made for that reading; but the films’ audiences, who are never simply passive consumers, are equally prepared to betray their idols, too, not least in their always unfaithful translations and repackagings of Hollywood plots for their own needs and desires. There’s also a third rendering of the title’s meaning, in that it’s around the figure of Hayworth that Toto’s father betrays him: he says that she’s his favourite movie star and promises to accompany him to the cinema, but never does. As such, the title is probably best rendered in English as The Rita Hayworth Betrayal, which conveys the multiple forms of resistance, deviation, and resignification that run through the novel. At precisely the time that Peronism is trying to constitute an Argentine people, not least through political technologies based on the cinematic experience, La traición de Rita Hayworth undermines the very notion of a cinematic pact, by refusing to give us a recognizable plot that would bind its constituent parts in the service of a single grand narrative. No: instead of a people, the book’s radical fragmentation and refusal to settle on a single point of view, its constant productive betrayal, point instead to a multitude that rebels against any attempts to reduce multiplicity to identity.

Cien años de soledad II

Cien años de soledad

Given the criticisms that have targeted magical realism for its easy descent into cheap exoticism and even kitsch–see for instance Julian Barnes’s complaint about the “package-tour baroque”– it’s perhaps surprising to remember that Cien años de soledad ends in such apocalyptic manner: with a mother bleeding to death, her newborn baby eaten by ants, and a hurricane of Biblical proportions that destroys Macondo and its entire fictional universe, all of which is to be “exiled from the memory of men” (549 [417]). There is little here in the way of consolation or hope. It’s closer to James Ellroy or Cormac McCarthy than to the gentle amiability that we expect of the always-smiling García Márquez. Of course, in some ways the book’s concluding gesture is futile: Macondo is far from wiped out from its readers’ memories. And despite the prediction that “everything written” in the manuscripts that describe and predict this holocaust–and so, by implication, everything that’s written in the novel itself–“was unrepeatable from time immemorial and forever more” (550 [417]), there have been innumerable attempts to copy and adapt the magical realist style, with more and less success, from Salman Rushdie to Laura Esquivel. Indeed, if anything tends to be forgotten about Cien años, perhaps it is its devastating climax and the symbolic self-destruction of everything that has come before. It is the dark side of magical realism, its grotesque horror, that all too quickly fades from the reader’s mind, or perhaps is simply not taken seriously enough.

Meanwhile, this final claim that the novel is somehow an unrepeatable event is both an impossible paradox and something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. For Cien años is indeed a singular book, and its astonishing combination of equally enormous critical and commercial success has seldom if ever been duplicated: not by any other of the novelists of the Boom, or even by García Márquez himself. But it is precisely its uniqueness that has ensured that it has never lacked for imitators. No wonder that Barnes or the writers later associated with the “McOndo” movement should plead for a stop to the proliferating repetitions of something like (but not like enough) One Hundred Years of Solitude, whose nadir was probably The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts, by self-confessed “Márquez parasite” Louis de Bernières. More fundamentally, Cien años is also largely a book about (indeed, obsessed with) repetition, and it goes against the novel’s own logic that it should end with such an absolute prohibition of duplication and reiteration. After all, it is the failure of such a prohibition–the injunction against the Buendía family’s “original sin” of incest–that sets its plot moving and drives it forward, as the narrative is full of every variation of incestuous desire until finally the last of the line, Amaranta Ursula and her nephew Aureliano Babilonia, come together and produce the foretold offspring with the tail of a pig. However much you try to do something different and avoid the mistakes of the past, that past continues to haunt you. Indeed, it is perhaps only because by the end the very atmosphere of Macondo is so full of the ghosts of the motley cast of characters that have wandered through the book’s pages, that in the end García Márquez can only end the thing by shouting “enough!” and bringing on a cataclysmic hurricane that will tear the whole place down.

For another irony is that this novel, whose title tells us it is concerned with solitude, does in fact, and thanks in part to its proliferating repetitions, present us with what can only be called a multitude. Even at the end, when Aureliano is practically the only man left in town, the very objects that surround him invoke the continued presence of other lives that live on through shared habits. He sits in a rocking chair, for instance, that is “the same one in which Rebeca had sat during the early days of the house to give embroidery lessons, and in which Amaranta had played Chinese checkers with Colonel Gerineldo Márquez, and in which Amaranta Ursula had sewn the tiny clothing for the child” (546 [414]). His response to feel oppressed under “the crushing weight of so much past” (546 [414]); this may well be a bad multitude. But the point is that his problem is hardly solitude per se, or at least not in any simple sense. Indeed, more generally this is a book that is characterized by excess and overindulgence more than anything else. Indeed, it would be no less misleading if it had the title Cien años de plenitud.

This is, after all, also a book that clearly has ambition to be a “total novel”–another reason for it ultimately to declare that it can never be done again–and in service of that (itself, excessive) ambition, it overflows. It’s not just one multitude, but many: a multitude of Aurelianos and José Arcadios, of butterflies and beauties, of inventions and apparatuses, of firing squads and wars, of gypsies and of bananas and caramels, of flowers and books, of chamber pots and doubloons, of merchants and mistresses, of (mis)interpretations and mistakes, of solitudes (yes, solitudes, too) and friendships. Everything is singular but nothing is single: another will always come along in due time. If anything, Macondo’s problem (and that of its inhabitants) is that it is never alone, that there is no way of avoiding or preventing the various forces and energies that sweep through it. Even shutting oneself away (as so many characters repeatedly do) is simply embedding oneself in the machine, often enough to invest still further in the formidable cycles of creation, production, and destruction that drive the multitude. The task, then, is less to resist the multitudes than to determine which are bad (pestilential or merely kitsch) and which are good, enhancing life in all its myriad incarnations.

Cien años de soledad I

Cien años de soledad

Life is seldom easy or straightforward in Macondo, the small town at the centre of Gabriel García Márquez’s renowned One Hundred Years of Solitude. The first half of the book alone is full of violence, treachery, and deception; things only get worse in the second half. And the Buendía family who are the town’s lifeblood have a particularly complex set of tales to tell: at times over-run with children (legitimate, adopted, or otherwise), at times riven by strife and haunted by ghosts, and forever fragmented by the ambitions or desires of their menfolk. Throughout, it is the matriarch, Ursula Iguarán, who tries to keep things together and look after the house, but there is only so much that even she can do. The Buendías seldom seem to learn from their mistakes–indeed, they delight in repetition–and so it is with some bitterness and desperation that Ursula exclaims, as she sees her grandson going through the same motions as his grandfather: “I know all of this by heart, [. . .] It’s as if time had turned around and we were back at the beginning” (303 [193]). The irony is that both men’s folly is the dream of progress and development; there’s little that’s more unoriginal and hackneyed than novelty.

But it’s hard to blame the Buendías, even the crassest and least self-reflective among them. For they are often at best only inadvertent agents: their most heartfelt goals seldom come to fruition; Colonel Aureliano Buendía, for instance, leads constants rebellions and revolts, to little obvious effect. And on the other hand, the characters are often no more than vectors for energies that come from elsewhere. Sometimes these are broad, historical forces: so Colonel Aureliano, then, is more a personification of the endless warfare that afflicted Latin America in the nineteenth-century–an incarnation of a restless war machine–than he is the agent of his own destiny. But sometimes these energies are more local and more specific, the expression of non-human actants that surround and permeate Macondo. For famously this is a book that opens with the declaration that “Things have a life of their own, [. . .] It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls” (84 [1-2]). And it is this that is the essence of García Márquez’s magical realism: the acknowledgement that objects, too, have their own lives, their own desires and destinies that can both compete and collude with human plans and expectations.

The scene is set in the opening pages, as the gypsies bring everything from magnets and telescopes to flying carpets and ice to the remote backwater of Macondo. Some of these things are, of course, more “magical” than others, but the point is that they are all treated (more or less) equally, as examples of mechanisms and apparatuses that both expand and frustrate human desire. Caught up in the whirlwind of novelty, Ursula’s husband, José Arcadio, happily installs an alchemist’s laboratory in his own home, and it is this space–that becomes laboratory, workshop, and archive–that is the hub of the book’s fictive universe, however much for long periods it is forgotten, sealed up, and ignored. For the liveliness of things continues whether or not we realize or acknowledge it. And collectively, house, town, and family are no doubt best understood as an assemblage or set of assemblages that variously channel, filter, reproduce, transform, and magnify broader social forces through the intermediation of a complex multitude of smaller parts (buildings, rooms, people, body parts, animals, objects) whose interaction is frustratingly predictable at times and utterly novel at others.

Todos los fuegos el fuego

Julio Cortázar, Todos los fuegos el fuego

In the middle of a short story entitled “Instrucciones para John Howell” (“Instructions for John Howell”), Argentine author Julio Cortázar has his protagonist, a man called Rice, complain loudly about a play that he’s watching with some frustration: “It’s a scandal! [. . .] How can anyone stand the fact that they change actors halfway through a scene?” (133). But the man sitting next to Rice in the audience responds with little more than a bored sigh: “You never know with these young authors. [. . .] It’s all symbolic, I suppose” (133). And though by the time this collection of stories, Todos los fuegos el fuego, was published in 1966, Cortázar was 52 (and so a full decade older than fellow Boom writers such as Donoso, Fuentes, or García Márquez), one could still imagine that this might be the reaction it elicited: a contradictory blend of uncomprehending shock and knowing world-weariness. For by 1966 authors continued trying to shock their audiences, and yet the shock of the new had itself become old. The risk was that that text might get lost, stranded between scandal and déjà vu.

One might imagine a reader making a complaint much like Rice’s when faced with the story “La señorita Cora” (“Miss Cora”), which constantly and abruptly shifts between narrators, often in mid-paragraph. A young boy is in hospital for a minor operation, and we switch rapidly between the perspectives of parent, nurse, and patient. Similarly, the title story “Todos los fuegos el fuego” (“All Fires the Fire”) jumps back and forth between a story of gladiators in Rome and a much more contemporary tale of a fatal love triangle in Paris. Why do this? What does it add? Is there not something almost perverse in this drive to disrupt our reading that surely puts so many off? But the more resigned response of anyone familiar with the Boom might be to observe that such narrative fragmentation and changes in point of view are par for the course in mid-century experimental fiction. From Roa Bastos to Vargas Llosa, Fuentes to Lezama Lima, Boom authors and their peers seem devoted to making life hard for the reader, and ironically it’s the fact that these gambits have become so very common that gives readers a way out. For if sheer puzzlement leads to an emotive refusal to read, perhaps with a denunciation of innovation as elitist or unnecessary, jejeune familiarity is little better in that it entails a nonchalant declaration that a detailed reading is superfluous in that there’s nothing really new under the sun. “It’s all symbolic, I suppose.“ Or, as a free translation of this book’s title might have it: if you’ve seen one fire, you’ve seen them all.

By encoding these two apparently opposed (but secretly complicit) reaction within the text itself, Cortázar is also surely trying to ward them off. As such, if we can be sure of anything, it has to be that it’s not “all symbolic.” Readings that take refuge in symbolism and allegory have missed the point and neutralized the real impact of what the writer is trying to achieve. For there surely still is something at least faintly scandalous about abrupt shifts of points of view that disrupt grammatical or syntactical propriety. As soon as we see experimentation as just another trope, then we miss something of the text’s affective reality. After all, in the case of the play that Rice is watching, it’s been whispered in his ear that someone’s life may be at stake. Perhaps still more to the point, Rice knows that the actors have been changed because at one point he was up there on the stage himself. And perhaps this is also where the scandalized and the world-weary responses to the text join forces, in that both gloss over the reader’s own affective investment in the reading. When Rice complains to his neighbour about the scandalous nature of the play they are both watching, his comment hides his own contribution to that scandal.

In the end, what outrage and (purported) ennui alike deny are the ways in which readers get caught up in the text’s machinic assemblage. Machines are everywhere to be found in this collection of stories, from the opening tale of an almost interminable traffic jam on the outskirts of Paris (“La autopista del sur”) to the aeroplane from which (in “La isla a mediodía”) a flight attendant glimpses what he imagines to be a pristine Mediterranean Island. In “Instrucciones para John Howell,” it is the reader, as he or she becomes actor and thus (to an extent, however limited) author who is depicted in mechanistic terms. In the wings, preparing to go on-stage, Rice is described as “mechanically” changing his clothes (129). When in front of the footlights, realizing he has to “submit to the madness and give himself over to the simulacrum” (125), he finds his entry into the spectacle (which, while he is within it, is no longer spectacle) to be eased by his recourse to the automatism of habit. He picks up his role through gestures that he doesn’t even need to think through: the “trivial ritual of lighting a cigarette” for instance (125). What counts now is less the big scene nor the broad overview, less the scandal or the context that neutralizes it, than “the details” and the detailed reading, because it is there and only there that reader, author, and actor finds his or her “maximum freedom” (128).

Historia personal del “Boom”

Donoso, Historia personal del "boom"

José Donoso’s Historia personal del “boom” presents itself as an insider’s account of the phenomenal success suddenly achieved by Latin American writers in the 1960s. Yet Donoso is never fully an insider, as he himself notes. He mentions the great Uruguayan critic Angel Rama’s pronouncement that the Boom had four fixed members about whom there was no dispute: Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes. But there seemed to be one more place open in the group, and little agreement as to who occupied it: perhaps Ernesto Sábato, perhaps Donoso himself (217). At other times, there have been other claimants and other nominees to this fifth, strangely mobile and uncertain, place in the Boom pantheon: Severo Sarduy or Augusto Roa Bastos, for instance. In this company, Donoso has a good a claim as any and better then most, not least because he was friends with many of the key players and travelled the same circuit of conferences, festivals, openings, and parties. As his wife’s own account, “El ‘boom’ doméstico,” relates, there was even a time when their families, living in Spain and France, would converge on Barcelona to celebrate Christmas together. But stylistic differences and (crucially) somewhat lesser commercial success prevent Donoso from being fully part of the gang. Like Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe, or Brian Epstein and George Martin, he will perhaps eternally be simply one of many contenders to the status of “fifth Beatle” alongside the fab four.

The main point Donoso makes is that the Boom was about more than marketing. Indeed, he’s keen to point out that almost all the key texts he read in the heady days of the early 1960s came to him informally, as gifts or by personal recommendation, carried in the luggage of friends who formed a network that he compares to the ancient Inca system of long-distance messengers known as “chasquis.” It was these informal exchanges, nourished by occasional events such as the 1962 Congress of Intellectuals in Concepción, Chile, that made the Boom possible. Individual writers were inspired to believe that they could go beyond the costumbrismo and social realism of their immediate forbears, whose concern was to construct or consolidate images of national identity. So while young authors were trying to overcome or bypass national borders and boundaries, they felt hamstrung by the insistence on the part of their elders that what mattered was difference and distinction, specificity and particularity. But by invoking an Inca model to explain the workings of an incipient informal cultural globalization, Donoso is also implicitly challenging standard historical narratives: the true Latin American, he suggests, prefers openness and fluidity to the hermetic closures of the nationalist tradition. If the Boom authors refused to recognize literary parentage, declaring themselves (as here) “orphans” (28), perhaps this was because the preceding generation had, in their turn, already betrayed a more hybrid and cosmopolitan version of Latin American identity.

Donoso does, however, recognize the risks that these young, ambitious authors ran. The Boom begins and ends, he suggests, with a party. The first of these takes place in Fuentes’s Mexico City house in 1965; full of “chaos and hullaballoo,” it is the culmination of a “dazzling Mexican carnival” (112). Writers mix with film stars, and the atmosphere is excitement and vivacity. But there’s also a menacing and grotesque note sounded, as “tarantulas” form that sweep even the most timid of party-goers into the mix of “bodies captive to the rhythmic rattle in which the beautiful people shed one item of clothing after another.” Donoso goes looking to introduce himself to García Márquez, only to be approached by “a man with a black moustache who asked if I was Pepe Donoso. We embraced like Latin Americans and were swallowed up by the frenzied tarantula as it passed by” (113). Five years later, Donoso tells us, the Boom finally fizzles out in another party, this time in Juan Goytisolo’s house in Barcelona, to celebrate the New Year of 1970. Here, the dancing is less chaotic and more predictable, the acting out of national stereotype: the Vargas Llosas perform to a Peruvian waltz before the García Márquezes come out to a tropical merengue. In the middle of it all, lounging on a couch, is famed Catalan literary agent Carmen Balcells: “She seemed to hold in her hands the strings to make us all dance like puppets” (124). The ecstatic frenzy of the New World has become Old World decadence and grand guignol, spontaneity replaced by stage management and exploitation.

Perhaps the writers protest too much. Several times we hear from García Márquez that “all editors are rich and all writers are poor” (72), but this quip starts to ring hollow after a while, not least from the best-selling Boom author of them all. If there was exploitation between writers and agents, publishers and publicists, it no doubt went both ways. And if the very concept of the Boom was, as Donoso argues, the creation of its detractors, product of “hysteria, envy, and paranoia” (11), those it described, and even many of those caught up in its coat-tails, still did quite well from this upsurge of interest in Latin America and its literature. For good or ill, the Boom transformed the way in which we think about the region, and continues to frame many of our (pre)conceptions and assumptions. And by “we” I mean not just outsiders–Europeans and North Americans. As Donoso himself attests, the Boom also challenged and reconfigured the ways in which Latin American writers saw their vocation and its possibilities. The Boom itself may have fizzled or dissipated all too soon, and Donoso and his wife both write with some nostalgia and regret about the brief moment that camaraderie and friendship accompanied shared literary success. But in the end neither friendship nor success were the Boom’s lasting legacy, rather a new network of associations and a new set of habits and expectations.

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.

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.