The Untimely Present: Postdictatorial Latin American Fiction and the Task of Mourning

The Untimely Present: Postdictatorial Latin American Fiction and the Task of Mourning

by Idelber Avelar

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The Untimely Present examines the fiction produced in the aftermath of the recent Latin American dictatorships, particularly those in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. Idelber Avelar argues that through their legacy of social trauma and obliteration of history, these military regimes gave rise to unique and revealing practices of mourning that pervade the literature of this region. The theory of postdictatorial writing developed here is informed by a rereading of the links between mourning and mimesis in Plato, Nietzsche’s notion of the untimely, Benjamin’s theory of allegory, and psychoanalytic / deconstructive conceptions of mourning.

Avelar starts by offering new readings of works produced before the dictatorship era, in what is often considered the boom of Latin American fiction. Distancing himself from previous celebratory interpretations, he understands the boom as a manifestation of mourning for literature’s declining aura. Against this background, Avelar offers a reassessment of testimonial forms, social scientific theories of authoritarianism, current transformations undergone by the university, and an analysis of a number of novels by some of today’s foremost Latin American writers—such as Ricardo Piglia, Silviano Santiago, Diamela Eltit, João Gilberto Noll, and Tununa Mercado. Avelar shows how the ‘untimely’ quality of these narratives is related to the position of literature itself, a mode of expression threatened with obsolescence.

This book will appeal to scholars and students of Latin American literature and politics, cultural studies, and comparative literature, as well as to all those interested in the role of literature in postmodernity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822398776
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 12/10/1999
Series: Post-Contemporary Interventions
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 312
File size: 602 KB

About the Author

Idelber Avelar is Associate Professor of Latin American Literatures and Critical Theory at Tulane University.

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The Untimely Present

Postdictatorial Latin American Fiction and the Task of Mourning

By Idelber Avelar

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9877-6



Modernization and Mourning in the Spanish American Boom

In 1997, as I write this study of contemporary fiction from Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, the "winds of democracy" and market euphoria have swept over the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Southern Cone. In Argentina, Carlos Menem is reconducted to presidency, anchored in a neoliberal version of a Peronism whose former popular component now finds itself tamed, turned into a docile appendix of global capital; in Brazil, the not unpredictable fate of once-oppositional dependency theory is embodied in sociologist Fernando Henrique Cardoso, reelected president by virtue of a solid alliance with rural oligarchies, business elites, and former heads of the military regime; in Chile, the posttransition pact joins the ultra-Right, Christian democrats, and renovated socialists in an indistinguishable praise of consensus, stability, and free market. A study of the present symbolic production of these countries from the standpoint of their postdictatorial condition bears the stamp of the untimely. Judging from the frailty of existing elaborations of experiential memory in official public spheres, one would never know that barely a decade (in the case of Chile, less than that) has evolved since the completion of one of the most brutal massacres known in Latin American history. Market logic absorbs even the documentation of disappearances and tortures as yet another piece of the past for sale, while the ever more domesticated social sciences take it upon themselves to instrumentalize information in the interest of a peaceful and responsible transition.

In this context, it may not be wise to entertain any illusions of uncooptability, but one thing that a philosophically informed reflection on literature can do is to foreground a certain reserve of meaning, shed light upon a certain area of experience alien to the imaginary of the democratic transitions. I would like to think of this area as mappable into a topology of affects. What I mean by that expression will hopefully be clarified as I move along. For now, suffice it to say that I take the word affect in a rather material sense. Affects—as opposed to feelings, sensations, emotions, that is, all the vocabulary inherited from a certain Romanticism—are not exhausted within the boundaries of ego psychology or any other narratives grounded on the primacy of interiority and the self. As I will refer extensively to concepts such as mourning and memory, all the necessary precautions will be taken to desubjectivize them and delimit them as immanent to the social field, thereby doing with postdictatorial literature something entirely other than a "psychology of a nation." Such reduction of affects to an egological vocabulary has its own history in Latin America; it reappears in much of the rhetoric surrounding exile, as well as in that more general resurrection of confessional literature during the 1970s, such as the Brazilian marginal poetry or the various forms of testimonialism. That historical moment will be dealt with as an entrance to a social and cultural transformation coinciding with the crisis of the military regimes, the aftermath of which being the proper object of this endeavor.

The argument around affects and experience will often lead to an intervention in the ongoing debate over the status of literature in the rearrangement of Latin American civil societies. Several conclusions have recently been drawn about literature's relevance, political and otherwise, in this rearrangement. John Beverley has justified his shift from literature totestimonio on the grounds that "where literature in Latin America has been (mainly) a vehicle for engendering an adult, white, male, patriarchal, 'lettered' subject, testimonio allows for the emergence—albeit mediated—of subaltern female, gay, indigenous, proletarian, and other identities." In the most consistent critique of literature's role in the continent, George Yúdice has opposed, on the one hand, art and literature as "the privileged conveyors of national identity ... in the modern period" and "gatekeeper[s] permitting certain classes of individuals to establish standards of taste within the public sphere and excluding others" to, on the other hand, testimonio as the expression of a "liberated consciousness free of such elitism." Alongside praise for testimonio, similar arguments have been made for shifting critical attention to indigenous pictography, popular artisanship, and mass media as objects now endowed with the social relevance literature once had. The growing consensus is that "literature seems to have ceded its critical position or become marginalized." I will in many instances operate within this consensus, although hopefully displacing it as well. In a context where the written word comes under increasing critical attention and faces an unprecedented challenge from a predominantly audiovisual culture, one cannot simply go on with the business of reading and analyzing texts while ignoring the larger disciplinary problems faced by literary criticism.

One of the threads of the argument harks back to the 1970 decision by Cuba's Casa de las Americas to begin awarding a prize for testimonial texts. Cuban testimonialist Miguel Barnet would argue that as opposed to an "exotic, paternalistic, colonizing" literature, testimonio offered "the gaze from within, from the Latin American I, from the Latin American we." In rather different manners Barnet, Beverley, and Yúdice were reacting against the privileged position enjoyed by that trend of modern Latin American literature known as the boom. Indeed, the struggle over the literary within Latin American studies today—as well as the discussion concerning modernity and postmodernity in the continent—hinges, to a great extent, on the stance one takes toward the legacy left by the boom. Revisiting these texts thus imposes itself as an urgent task, for their impact can be felt everywhere from the perception of Latin America abroad to the profile of arts and humanities curricula at schools and universities in and out of the continent.

One of the boom's fundamental features was a coupling of literary production with a self-descriptive, self-justifying critical practice, as in Carlos Fuentes's and Alejo Carpentier's essays, or Vargas Llosa's and Emir Rodríguez Monegal's critical activity. Such critical labor, nurtured by the stunning commercial achievements of their fiction, helped forge a solid hegemony upon what has been understood as literature in the continent. In his La nueva novelet hispanoamericana, Carlos Fuentes, by then already an internationally acclaimed novelist, offers a narrative in which the boom emerges as the culmination of a maturing process in Latin American literature. His text displays one of the crucial discursive strategies of the period: the construction of a genealogy in which the present invariably takes the form of a successful overcoming of the past. The passage from Domingo Sarmiento to Romulo Gallegos is described as "the transit from epic simplism to dialectical complexity, from the security of answers to the impugnation of questions." History comes to be recounted through the organicist metaphors of progress, development, and growth, as civilization wages yet again its holy war against barbarism. The novel of the Mexican Revolution is said to have imposed a "first qualitative change" by eliminating "our primitive gallery of villains." A progressively conquered complexity and gradual surmounting of earlier flaws constitutes the central tropes in this modernizing rhetoric centered on the "for the first time." The new narrative is argued to represent the moment when "for the first time, our novels knew how to laugh," while Julio Cortazar's characters are defined as the "first beings in the Latin American novel who simply exist, ... without any discursive attachments to good or evil."

Such euphoria reinforced the certainty of having resolved old problems and dichotomies. This is the discourse of inauguration, the Adamic face of the boom. Emir Rodríguez Monegal curiously recasts the age-old Latin American polarity between the urban and the rural by arguing that boom novels are proof that the conflict, now transcended for good, had been false from the beginning: "whereas in the old novels the city was usually an absence making its mysterious arbitrariness felt, in the new novelists' world the city is the pivot, the center, the place where all roads intersect." Monegal's strategy goes further than asserting the obvious, quantitative literary shift from the rural to the urban (which accompanied a continental social process); it systematically associates the rural with simplism and preartistic primitivism: "The classic opposition between urban and rural novels has been dissolved at its base.... Those narratives of peasants and jungles, with two-dimensional characters and mechanical, documentary expositions are now long gone." As the "mechanical and documentary" are progressively equated with the politically real, the new literature appears to represent the imaginary dissolution of conflicts. But if the thrust of Monegal's argument is to claim that one is dealing with a "false opposition," it is interesting to note that the "overcoming" of the dichotomy was conceived as the elimination of one of its terms. The assumption is that the elaborated and complex city has definitively discarded the mechanical and simple countryside. As Monegal balances his judgment by stating that "what is dead is not the rural novel, but rather the bad rural novel," any critical reader is immediately led to ask if such a thing as the "bad urban novel" would not exist also or if it could be forgotten other than by bad faith. At any rate, the important point is that the boom's reaction against the novda de la tkrra is elaborated through a curious identification between the artistic and the urban, asopposed to a rurality which, with its stories of "peasants and jungles, ... rarely achieves the purely literary plane."

I believe that such association had less to do with preferences of scenario, characterization, or any strictly narratological matters. After all, several of the novels acclaimed by Monegal and his fellow boomers as paradigms of the "new narrative" are rural or semirural: Cien años de soledad, Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo, Guimarães Rosa's Grande Sertão: Veredas, and so on. The explanation is to be searched elsewhere, namely in the fact that within the boom's discursive imaginary, the urban became synonymous with the universal. By identifying rural literature with the past, one convinced oneself that the past was now dead, that we were all part of the same global village, and that the painful distinction between center and periphery had finally been erased. See how Monegal finishes his diatribe against the rural: "now, each Latin American big city ... aspires to having its Balzac, its Galdós, its Proust, its Joyce, its Dos Passos, its Moravia, its Sartre." One might be tempted to caricature the problem a little and say that within the discursive possibilities offered by the boom, Buenos Aires or Caracas might have their Balzac, but it was highly unlikely that Tucuman or Chiapas would ever have their Steinbeck. In the direct correlation of rurality equals naturalism, everything nonurban became unnarratable in the new fiction's revolutionary language, a conclusion that although deducible from Fuentes's and Monegal's arguments, remains unsaid in their texts. Instead, in Fuentes's work the flowery frontispiece reads, "we, Latin Americans, at last integrated into the march of universal literature:"

The certainty as to the universality of language allows us rigorously to speak of the contemporaneity of the Latin American writer, who suddenly becomes part of a common cultural present.... Our writers can direct their questions not only to the Latin American present, but also to a future that will be increasingly common at the levels of culture and spiritual condition of all men, no matter how accentuated our technical isolation and deformation may be.

In this rather coarse reading of some structuralist postulates, universal culture would supposedly emerge from linguistic universality, over and above social and economic differences, an assumption that permeated the boom's entire discursive spectrum, from the Right (e.g., Monegal and Paz) all the way to the Left (e.g., Carpentier and Cortázar). Hencethe possibility of referring to the boom as a discursive formation: certain necessary conditions presided over the archive of possible statements, regardless of the polemics and disagreements among its members. Alejo Carpentier presents the same conception of cultural modernization: "[Fuentes's Terra Nostra] has been made possible thanks to the evolution of the Latin American novelist toward the acquisition of an ever vaster, ever more ecumenical, ever more encyclopedic culture that has bloomed from the local to achieve the universal." Universality is here understood as an integration into the Western canon, an accomplishment by which one eventually succeeded in surpassing the European masters:

[W]hen they had Proust and Joyce, the Europeans were barely or not at all interested in Santos Chocano or Eustasio Rivera. Now, however, when they only have Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute or Giorgio Bassani, how can they not turn their eyes and look beyond their borders for more interesting, less lethargic, more alive writers? Search, within recent European literature, for an author comparable to Julio Cortázar, a novel of the quality of El siglo de las luces, a profound and subversive poetic voice such as that of the Peruvian Carlos Germán Belli; they are not to be found anywhere.

Vargas Llosa, author of the preceding quote, thus voices the boom's Oedipal thrust, complementary to and directly dependent on the Adamic gesture to which 1 alluded earlier. We murder the European father by outplaying him under his own rules; we show him his moribund body while he acknowledges that the crown has a new bearer. The victorious Oedipal narrative told the story of a dead father reading the books written by his son. As is the case with every triumphant Oedipus, however, not all accounts were settled; the father never dies as irreversibly as one imagines. There is always a restitutive moment in which the father's ghost, the specter once thought to be unequivocally conjured, returns to haunt the living. A genealogical reading must, above all, come to terms with the itinerary of this return.

What can be observed in the critical pieces by boom writers is a tendency to see literature as disproportionately "advanced," "ahead of its time" vis-à-vis the continent's economic and social backwardness.

Whether this was indeed so, that is, whether they were right in postulating a precocious maturity in Latin American literature, does not matter much. 1 would actually argue this is a false problem altogether. What has to be attended to is the rhetoric in which the diagnosis of a dissymmetry between the social and the literary came to be equated with the postulate of a substitutive operation whereby the latter was said to compensate for the former. "No matter how accentuated our technical isolation," we write the best literature in the world. The relationship between culture and economics then took a twisted form: they were so far apart that the development of the former bore no relationship to the backwardness of the latter; yet they were close enough that one could remedy, cure, function as a corrective of the other. This paradox has been constitutive of the evolution of contemporary Latin American literature and has a significant bearing on the current dilemmas faced by literary criticism in the continent.

Yet one should not think that the gestures observed in Fuentes, Monegal, Vargas Llosa, and Carpentier were somehow a product of a presumed naïveté on their part or simply mistakes that could have been avoided. It remains to be explained why the boom's close complicity with modernization theory was not an option among others, that is, why boom writers were not a group freely choosing the stance to be taken toward modernization. Besides the voluntarist reading of the Cuban Revolution—encouraged, it is true, by the Cuban leaders themselves, but a reading also appropriated in South America as a kamikaze, suicidal strategy—another factor was crucial in this process. As Angel Rama has argued, the boom represented the culminating moment in the professionalization of the Latin American writer. For the first time in Latin America an entire generation of writers found their means of survival in literary writing through the autonomization of the" literary sphere from state patronage. It was this becoming-autonomous that laid the ground for triumphant assertions of literature's consciousness-raising powers, such as this one by Julio Cortázar: "What is the boom if not the Latin American people's most extraordinary achievement of consciousness of its own identity? ... Those who qualify it as a commercial maneuver forget that the boom was not brought about by publishers, but by the readers; and who are the readers if not the people of Latin America?" Beatriz Sarlo has compellingly demonstrated how an "illusory continuity between aesthetics and politics" operated in Cortázar. Such continuity—anecessary, constitutive one—took the form of an interesting paradox: progress and liberation were embodied by pre-Kantian, premodern free-thinking egos who chose what they wanted or did not want to read.


Excerpted from The Untimely Present by Idelber Avelar. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Allegory and Mourning in Postdictatorship

1. Oedipus in Post-Auratic Times

2. The Genealogy of a Defeat

3. Countertraditions

4. Encrypting Restitution

5. Pastiche, Repetition, and the Angel

6. Overcodification of the Margins

7. Bildungsroman at A Standstill or the Weakening of Storytelling

8. The Unmourned Dead and the Promise of Restitution

Afterword: Postdictatorship and Postmodernity


Works Cited


What People are Saying About This

Jean Franco

This is a book of superior scholarship, providing an original reading of texts that are of increasing interest to students and critics.
—(Jean Franco, Columbia University)

George Yudice

Avelar delivers a complex account of post-dictatorship society, culture, thought, and literature in a lucidly clear prose and an eloquent style.
—(George Yudice, New York University)

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