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This is a draft: please do not cite without author's permission


A version of this paper was presented at "The Millennial Border: New Novel Conference 1950-2050." Aberdeen, April 1999.

"New Novels, Old Narratives:
Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Latin America"


Latin American fiction, like much cultural production from outside the European metropolis, has a tendency to disrupt the customary narratives of aesthetic periodisation. However much, for instance, an earlier generation of critics attempted to read nineteenth-century Latin American novels through the frame provided by European movements such as Realism or Naturalism, these attempts ultimately fail to convince. This failure arises from the paradox that even when Latin American writers enthusiastically followed models provided by Balzac, Zola, or other European writers, the very fidelity of their imitations introduces a sense of uncanny difference. Postcolonial mimicry, as Homi Bhabha would put it, can cause a rather anxious re-examination of the originary literary historical narratives: if a literary style can be so easily displaced to another social or historical location, then the apparently natural links between European conditions and European literary expression come to be questioned. As a result, it is not simply that a literary historical narrative fails in its application to the periphery, but rather that its reproduction elsewhere undercuts our assumptions about the relation between original and copy. Jorge Luis Borges' "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote" takes this process to its ironic limit: Menard's obsessively faithful recreation of Cervantes' novel and his "technique of deliberate anachronism and erroneous attribution" (59) threaten to turn literary history on its head, instituting a counter-colonisation that "makes the calmest of books become crowded with adventure" (59).

Above all, then, the literary history of colonial and postcolonial fiction destabilises the activity of literary history itself. The geopolitics of colonialism and its legacies destabilises ordered chronological narratives of intellectual and cultural influence--the stately procession whereby, to stay with Borges' examples, the modern novel follows on from Cervantes or the Aeneid post-dates the Odyssey. Literary history in Latin America demands, as a first step, the correlate of a literary geography, an attempt to understand the relations of dependence and influence between centre and periphery, between so-called First and Third worlds. Even the attempt by Latin American writers to construct relatively self-contained national literatures along a European model demonstrates the impossibility written into the project of a self-contained national literature and points to a structure of global political and economic underdevelopment.

To study colonial or postcolonial literature, then, is also necessarily to study metropolitan literature. Latin American cultural production provides a perspective from which to view European culture, with the significant advantage that traditional assumptions about literature and culture are thereby denaturalised and presented in new, sharp relief. Roberto Schwarz' analyses of Brazilian culture and of the Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis bear out this argument. Schwarz shows how Western liberalism constitutes a "misplaced idea" in nineteenth-century Brazil. In their cultural representations, the nineteenth-century Brazilian bourgeoisie imported Western liberal notions of rational universalism and equality before the law, but these ideas were "misplaced" in that they failed to correspond even remotely to the basis of Brazilian social structure, which was until 1888 still founded on slavery. Ideologies that in Europe were at least "well grounded in appearances" (23), in that they provided an account for the exploitation of wage-labour, became in Brazil "ideologies of the second degree" (23) and as such provided "ornament and aristocratic style" (24) rather than social cohesion or legitimation. Social order in Brazil was secured by force (and by slavery) rather than through ideology, and therefore in the novels of a writer such as Machado de Assis, Europe's ideological assumptions became "material and a problem for literature" (29) and could be subjected to a critical irony impossible elsewhere. Machado, Schwarz implies, can indicate the truth of European ideas precisely because they were manifestly untrue for Brazil. Latin America becomes the privileged standpoint from which to understand the European, and indeed global, system of hegemony.

In this process, then, we see once again the ways in which notions of priority or of development are soon destabilised. It becomes impossible to trace any simple priority of material conditions over cultural production (because postcolonial culture in some ways outstrips its material base), or of centre over periphery (because an ex-centric position provides the vantage point for a more acute social analysis). As literary history becomes literary geography or geopolitical analysis, again we see a destabilisation of metropolitan narratives. In other words, it is not enough simply to attempt to explain postcolonial culture through some easy invocation of social or historical context as, again, the relation between context and culture is itself now under interrogation. Any attempt to resort to more familiar narratives of influence or dependence is, then, bound to fail to convince, for even if the critic comes up with exactly the same story that he or she might expect to produce, this same exactitude will, again, be its most troubling consequence.

We can see precisely this troublesomeness in the standard narrative designed to explain and interpret the Latin American new novel. After all, this is a narrative that has in many ways been the victim of its own success, as can be seen in the almost palpable sense of embarrassment raised now by a term such as "magical realism," which has continually to be acknowledged yet disavowed as not, quite, a suitable framework for critical enquiry. Yet "magical realism" was precisely the critical banner under which the Latin American new novel achieved much of its extraordinary success in the international literary market, making the careers of one generation of Latin Americanist critics, and inspiring the good part of another generation to choose to specialise in Latin American literature. But while most of the writers associated with the so-called "boom"--such as Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa--retain their reputations and selling power, and while a new generation of Latin American writers--particularly women writers such as Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel--have achieved considerable success in their wake, the earlier confidence and consensus among critics of Latin American literature has largely dissipated. Attention has since variously turned to the paradigms of postmodernity or postcoloniality, to new genres such as testimonio, or to the catch-all category of the "post-Boom." While this is in some sense a sign of the critical field's expansion and increasing adventurousness, it is also surely an indication of the failure of the old narrative to explain the new novel itself.

I will argue that this failure stems from the fact that the standard narrative on the Latin American new novel took the form of a nostalgia attendant upon that narrative's metropolitan positioning. Criticism was caught in the contradictory position of hailing a new cultural form while endlessly reducing it to its European or US derivations or to its reflection or expression of some primary socio-political reality. This contradiction was encapsulated in the critical notion that the new novel somehow replayed one or both of two revolutions--the aesthetic revolution of European modernism or the Cuban revolution in Latin America itself. In either case, culture came to stand in for a displaced revolution and thus to assume a compensatory function that was simultaneously a fetishised position arousing excitement but also memorialising lack. Whatever its initial success, criticism of the new novel soon took on a rather mournful air that, finally, said more about the critics than it could ever say about the literature itself. The institution of criticism, founded in part on the new novel, remains, but with less and less to say. As the specificity of the aesthetic disappeared, so critics shuffled off towards some kind of simulacrum or ghost of compensation, which would make up for the failure of the new novel's compensatory function. This lonely search can be seen most obviously in the analysis of testimonio, but that is for the moment another story altogether.

Let us take, then, a case study to examine the ways in which narratives that assume the position of the metropolis (even as they may speak of the periphery) are condemned to misrecognition and to a cultural nostalgia for a lost aesthetic, even if this nostalgia can be read symptomatically for the processes it works to conceal. Gerald Martin's survey of twentieth-century Latin American fiction, Journeys Through the Labyrinth (one of standard English language narratives for this period, and written as an engaged, leftist text) is paradigmatic in this respect, tracing as it does a familiar correlation of the fortunes of the boom (the ascendance to international prominence of the Latin American novel in the 1960s) with the rise and fall from grace of the Cuban revolution. What is precisely most familiar and most paradigmatic about this account is the extent to which aesthetics and politics in Latin America are seen as the delayed reproduction of European modernism.

Thus, associating the aesthetic with "revolutionary desires," Martin locates the boom in the "trajectory between Castro's Words to the Intellectuals (1961) and the Padilla affair a decade later" (242). Aesthetics and politics may be so neatly correlated thanks to the tardy modernisation that Martin sees as underlying both--"the twentieth century began late in Latin America" (238). Latin American writers had to free themselves from the weight of what had happened elsewhere; they worked to emerge from the shadow of (particularly) James Joyce and William Faulkner, and attempted to write high modernist, Ulyssean novels that would give meaning to the regional totality. This they were unable to do at first, as "Latin American society was not in the 1920s in such an infrastructural or superstructural condition as to give rise to the kinds of European and North American fiction written in the 1920s and 1930s" (242). By the 1960s, however, Martin claims that economic expansion and the Cuban Revolution provided "a perspective of change, progress and apparently infinite choice" (242) that enabled the creativity of the boom. Again, for Martin, this is the return of the European same: it had been just such a productive conjuncture of European modernisation and the early years of the Soviet Union that had "allowed for the extraordinary explosion of the [European] avant-garde in the period after the First World War" (242).

From this point, however, Martin's narrative is one of continual--and, it would seem, irreversible--decline: "there have been few Kafkas, Picassos, Joyces, Stravinskys or Einsteins anywhere since the 1920s, and even the cinema can hardly be said to have made 'progress' as an art form since the days of Griffith or Eisenstein" (240). Latin American fiction's decline sets in somewhat later than the degeneration of European high art, but then Latin America is, in Martin's narrative, perpetual handmaiden to European history. Still:

Needless to say, Latin American fiction has continued to produce large numbers of outstanding works, and remains perhaps the most fertile body of narrative in the world today, whilst publicity and sales have continued on an ever upward trend. Nevertheless, most readers seem to agree that the new works do not quite match the old ones in scale and perspective, and the genre has not developed very far beyond its position in the mid-1970s. (237)

For, according to Martin, Latin American fiction never quite achieves the heights of the originary modernist masters, but has functioned, and still (if weakly) continues to function, as compensation for European decline.

As compensation, after the revolutions, fiction provides a memorialising function, a trace of former revolutionary vigour. Perhaps this is a role played especially well by Latin American fiction, a younger, belated reminder of previous glories: so close and yet so far from God. Moreover, this is an institutionalised memory. The revolution brought by modernisation leaves us with its critical institutions--a whole scholarly apparatus on an ever "upward trend"--though these serve, it would seem, only an apparatus of mourning for what has been lost. In other words, the post-revolutionary era establishes the aesthetic institutions as the afterlife of the revolution, to perform an intense labour of mourning for the loss of an originary moment of aesthetic intensity. Implicit in this narrative is the idea that it is the memorialising function of the aesthetic that enables us to chart its necessary decline.

Martin, then, describes the end of the revolutionary opening as the point at which "writers were no longer 'free' to imagine and to create whatever they liked, because reality was closing in on them once again" (243). More clearly than ever, then, if the boom dries up when reality closes in, it becomes apparent that this narrative of the new novel depends upon the notion that literature is somehow unreal. We see now how much Martin depends upon this modernist trope of aesthetic distanciation from the real, for which both the aesthetic and the real tend toward invisibility once aesthetic autonomy is threatened. Given his narrative's drive to see the Latin American new novel as determined by or reflecting either European modernism or some socio-political reality elsewhere, Martin is now caught between the reductionism that this implies on the one hand, in which culture now disappears, and his need to assert culture's autonomy on the other hand, which disables the tactic of reading reality back through the novels. Caught in this crux, the critical narrative itself slowly fades away, leaving only a strange sense of disappointment and nostalgia.

This portrayal of the new novel disappearing under the weight of an all too harsh reality constitutes fundamentally an aestheticisation of the periphery, all too familiar from the establishment of the "New World" as sublime landscape of natural beauty and terror. The twentieth century move to see Latin America as site of a revolutionary sublime to enervate a weary, post-political Europe is no real divergence from this "substitution of aesthetics for politics" which Idelber Avelar also criticises in the writers of the boom (20). Politics as such disappears in this aestheticising move though, as we have seen, culture hardly fares any better either.

Moreover, rereading this account of the boom now, we might argue that the criticism of the new novel proved as much as anything to be a symptom of a certain metropolitan world-weariness. This world-weariness was associated with the mid-century apprehension that the age of Europe's revolutions, whether aesthetic or socio-political, was now over. Increasing interest in Latin American and other literatures--as, perhaps later, the vogue in world music--represented a sense that the centre could no longer hold and the desire to recapture a notion of radicality phantasmatically located in European modernism. The failure of this narrative, however, might now, like the identification of liberalism's misplaced ideas in nineteenth-century Brazil, offer the chance to isolate and re-examine the reasons why European modernism was considered such a world-historical event in the first place, whose resonances would have to be felt sooner or later in mid or late-twentieth century Latin America.

We might also, finally, resurrect the term "magical realism" to consider now that the real source of its embarrassment comes from the fact that it was to have described the West--but that the new novels themselves show the emptiness of this self-description. In other words, now noting that the narrative whereby twentieth-century Latin American fiction has been understood is overwhelmingly a narrative of modernisation and development, we can see that modernisation is here seen as somehow fantastical or magical. This is traditionally seen to apply to Latin America--magical realism being the symptom of Third World societies in transition between traditional and modern modes of production--but it is best seen, I think, as a rusty mirror held up to the West. The Latin American new novel's apparent depiction of modernisation as magical (yet, of course, overbearingly real) flattered the West, which liked to see itself as the locus of full development. How marvellous we are indeed if we have accomplished what those in the periphery consider so impossibly distant that literature can only stand in for developmental failure.

What, however, remains to be said about Latin American cultural production itself? I think some clues can be found in a variety of sources, including Idelber Avelar's The Experience of Defeat, which also examines the predicament of the boom as an aesthetic phenomenon that can only lament its success in achieving relative autonomy and mourn both its mythic past and its present compensatory function. He then goes on to consider Argentina, Chile and Brazil's so-called democratic transitions, and literature working through dictatorship and post-dictatorship, especially by Ricardo Piglia, João Gilberto Noll and Diamela Eltit. There is no time now to go into his analyses, but what is important is that Avelar regards politics and culture as distinct but irreducible parts of a single assemblage, rather than appealing to one to explain the other. By breaking from the standard mould of Latin Americanist criticism inspired by and instituted with the modernist understanding of the boom, Avelar is able to return to a more nuanced sense of Latin American specificity--which ironically, of course, makes these new novels (if we should still call them that) new again, as they regain their capacity truly to surprise. And if, as this conference's title suggests, we will be either condemned or blessed to live with the new novel for another fifty years into the next millennium, we must hope at the very least that they stay new.

works cited

Avelar, Idelber. The Experience of Defeat: Mourning and Memory in Post-Dictatorship Fiction from Argentina, Chile and Brazil. PhD. Diss. Romance Studies, Duke University. Durham: 1996.

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Ficciones. Madrid: Alianza, 1988.

Martin, Gerald. Journeys Through the Labyrinth: Latin American Fiction in the Twentieth Century. London: Verso, 1989.

Schwarz, Roberto. Misplaced Ideas: Essays on Brazilian Culture. London: Verso, 1992.



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