Department of French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies
The University of British Columbia
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This is a draft: please do not cite without author's permission
a version of this review was published in Modern Language Review 96.2 (April 2001): 565-566.
A Review of Twentieth-Century Ecuadorian Narrative: New Readings in the Context of the Americas. By KENNETH J. A. WISHNIA. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press; London: Associated University Presses. 1999. 202 pp.
The case against reading Third World literature is expressed, bluntly, in Saul Bellow's reputed challenge: 'Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?' In response it can be argued (along the lines of Virginia Woolf's discussion of 'Shakespeare's sister') that the Zulus' Tolstoy is unlikely to produce a Zulu War and Peace thanks to the lack of education, resources, and encouragement that he or she could expect to find in a Third World ravaged by colonialism. And in part this is Kenneth Wishnia's response to the task he faces in writing about Ecuadorian literature: thanks to the lack of a reading public, the vast majority of the population have not been in a position to write authoritative texts and, particularly, 'the millions of mountain-dwelling indigenous people have historically had books written about them, but literature has not been written for them . . . and to date virtually none has been written by them' (p. 12).
By the 1970s, however, the so-called Latin American 'Boom' reversed the customary paradigm. Thanks to the success of books such as Cien años de soledad, European critics were left asking 'Who is the Cortázar of the English? The García Márquez of the Germans?' Günter Grass and Salman Rushdie, amongst others, were praised in part because of the way in which their work seemed to resemble a Latin American literary model. Magical realism stood not merely for exoticism, but also for creativity and quality. The magical real provided a template for experience in a globalising world. Hence although magical realist novels have been interpreted as 'national allegories,' they have been seen above all as enlarging the canon of 'universal' literature.
In using magical realism as the benchmark for his study of Ecuadorian literature, then, Wishnia attempts to legitimate the study of a national literary tradition through reference to a literary style that is not usually read through a national lens. He hovers between a sociological analysis that would emphasise Ecuadorian particularity--and the way in which Ecuadorian literature has been conditioned by a specific national history--and a literary historical or comparatist frame that either categorises Ecuadorian texts in terms of transnational aesthetic movements (such as surrealism, social realism, and magical realism) or notes resemblances to texts produced within other national contexts. In essence, Wishnia wishes to have things every which way: he is constantly switching between historicism and formalism without resolving (or even identifying) the problems that ensue.
What results is a rather patchy and inconsistent book. There is much that is interesting and thought-provoking here, but arguments are often left incomplete, and there are many abrupt transitions between topics and approaches. While the introduction, for instance, reads at times like an unreconstructed Marxist attack on avant-garde experimentation (it is not often these days that Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky are cited approvingly as cultural critics) and on US cultural hegemony, elsewhere we find a rather subtler argument for something like an Ecuadorian premature modernism, in which José de la Cuadra's Los Sangurimas is seen as an unacknowledged precursor to García Márquez's Cien años de soledad. Yet there is an apparent contradiction here: is US hegemony (and so the influence of Faulkner or Dos Passos on Latin American literature) a fact to be denounced, or is it a façade that conceals a rival tradition and an alternative genealogy?
Wishnia is good at picking up intriguing connections and similarities across national traditions, but too often resemblance itself is the foundation for his arguments. The book is studded with phrases such as 'there are a number of significant similarities between...' (p. 75), 'one is reminded of...' (p. 80), 'a style reminiscent of...' (p. 110), 'a relevant parallel can be drawn...' (p. 115), and 'note the similarity to...' (p. 124), which mark transitions between (among others) Demetrio Aguilera Malta and Eugene O'Neill, El tigre and Moby Dick, or Eliécer Cárdenas and Sergei Eisenstein, without fully convincing us that these connections are justified or, indeed, necessary.
For after all it is ultimately an ahistorical and rather meaningless quest to go in search of 'the Ecuadorian The Grapes of Wrath' (p. 57), as much as it is to demand that the Papuans produce a Proust. Why indeed would we need another Proust (or another Grapes of Wrath)? If 'Aguilera Malta's drama belongs to a thoroughly different, more contemporary Third World point of view' compared to O'Neill's (p. 77), then surely it does not require comparison to O'Neill for its justification. Wishnia's continual return to arguments from resemblance reveal above all an anxiety over his main project of rescuing Ecuadorian literature from its isolation (he quotes Jorge Enrique Adoum: 'getting published in Ecuador is the same as remaining unpublished' [p. 99]) that rather undermines that project. Still, even if these steps towards a serious engagement with an undervalued literature are somewhat faltering, this is better than had they not been made at all.
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