This Review Should Not Exist

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From Public Books:

This review should not exist. I should not write it.

Pieces like this one always carry the same heading: “Dispatches from [insert country/geographic region],” “Three recent novels from [insert identity/language/culture].” If “natives” like me write these pieces, we acquire the voice of “our” culture and speak for its history. If others—nonlocals and, perhaps, nonspecialists—write them, historical specificity can evaporate into belles-lettristic formalism or stereotype, apolitical and stale. Such essays are, nevertheless, irrefutably important, since they can help bring foreign writers to US audiences. When well-written, they have the potential to rewrite harmful and boring tropes and offer new ways of pondering the literary landscape. Just like novels, though, they often uncritically fulfill the market’s demands (as I might be doing here).

The tangled incentives motivating this essay include: monetary and career incentives that led me to emigrate to and study in the US; monetary and career incentives that make translation into English essential for Third World writers (especially Latin American ones); and this publication’s platform—people interested mainly in American and British literature, with advanced humanities degrees conferred by US universities. Essays like this one risk calcifying the imperial dynamics that inevitably produce them, relegating the literary and cultural works they promote to the lesser literary field of keyword-laden generalities.

“Latin America” is one such keyword and, nowadays, a gringo fabrication. Even if I could rescue something decidedly autochthonous and pure that unified the region, I wouldn’t know how to tell it apart from the Yankee, imperial mythology. Latin American authors engaging elements of the continent’s shared canon and interconnected histories face a double bind that demands, in a sense, that they establish a relationship with “Latin America” as a formulation emanating from above—from centers of literary power, nowadays New York and formerly Paris—to be translated, to sell, to make money from their literature. Latin America registers in those literary centers as an aggregation of tropes established mostly by the aesthetics of token authors inducted into the “global” literary canon—Neruda, García Márquez, and Bolaño key among them. Borges, for these readers and critics, might as well have been French.

Obviously, economic and institutional rewards come to those willing to pander to US desires (just ask Isabel Allende). At the same time, one cannot deny that authors’ dependency on the US book market has increased exponentially in recent years. This has itself become a literary theme. Three recently translated, very different novels—César Aira’s The Divorce, Dolores Reyes’s Eartheater, and Pedro Mairal’s The Woman from Uruguay—each illuminate and interrogate aspects of top-down, imperial representational demands. At times critical of and dexterous in playing with gringo expectations, these novels attempt to develop forms of literary imagination, of reading and writing, that elude instead of rehearsing a partially gringo-defined, essential Latin Americanness.

. . . .

César Aira’s The Divorce was originally published in 2010 and comes to English courtesy of New Directions, translated by Chris Andrews and prefaced by Patti Smith. The novel assumes the voice of a wealthy, educated resident of Providence, Rhode Island (a Brown professor?), who moves, almost on a whim, to a Buenos Aires hostel following a painful divorce. “A temporary withdrawal on my part would be the kindest thing, for me and for my daughter,” he explains. “When I returned, all smiles and gifts, we would reestablish our relationship on the terms laid down by the judge.” Perhaps escape can quell the agonies of separation.

Latin America is ideal for fleeing, since it has historically been cast as exterior to history: a location in permanent, nondialectical détente. Think of Burroughs fleeing to Mexico after committing murder; Hemingway’s long love affair with La Finca Vigía; Britons awed by Patagonia. Atemporality draws imperialists like flies.

Likewise, for Aira’s narrator, Buenos Aires is a pause, unimportant and nonnarrative in his life because what matters is the “Providence (Rhode Island)” timeline. That name itself assumes an ironic guise, mocking gringo self-regard and foreshadowing the narrative’s distaste for P/providence.

Upon arriving in Buenos Aires, the narrator journeys to a local coffee shop. He witnesses a young man get drenched by the accumulated water of a retracting awning. Everything stops. As our narrator stares on, the soaked Enrique recognizes Leticia, the childhood acquaintance he was originally on his way to meet. A remarkable subnarrative arises here—“They hadn’t seen each other since the day they met, which was also the day that had marked the end of their childhood”—as Aira leads us down the story of Enrique and Leticia’s elementary school. That institution had burned down in a demonic fire they escaped by entering an also burning miniature model of the school that they found in a basement. This aside concludes with Enrique and Leticia’s reduction to atoms, which then escape the school together with millions of similarly sized priests.

. . . .

Aira does not really engage the more tangible historicity of Buenos Aires and Argentina, because his story mostly operates on a metafictional level. Meanwhile, Eartheater, Dolores Reyes’s first novel (translated by Julia Sanches) does tussle with the city’s specific pasts and presents.

Reyes narrates the story of an unnamed young woman from a Buenos Aires slum who sees her father murder her mother, then feels an uncanny urge to devour earth at her family’s property. Doing so, she briefly relives the moment of the killing. The narrator quickly realizes that by eating dirt from a specific location, she can witness the horrible events that transpired there. Quickly, albeit guiltily, she monetizes the skill, transforming into a sort of detective. Most of her clients are grieving parents looking for children, mainly daughters murdered by men—their partners and fathers. She hesitantly begins dating a policeman, whom she later encounters working at the scene of her ex’s murder, at a club she attends with her brother and his friends on the same night as the killing. Her ex’s murderer almost kills them, too, until her missing father reappears, saves them by stabbing their assailant, and vanishes into the night.

Eartheater gestures towards the vernacular of Buenos Aires villas (or slums), and Julia Sanches’s translation conveys that unique prosody remarkably well, despite some shaky moments. Mirroring the narrator’s mystical ability, the narrative hugs its haunted ground; land and earth document a history that the state does not. This is particularly the case in Argentina, where the aristocracy has historically hoarded and abandoned vast swaths of land, creating massive latifundios populated by poor, exploited workers who inherit the conditions and destitution of slaves.

Such land is increasingly owned by transnational corporations unconcerned with environmental and social destruction. These same heinous corporations probably produce the beer and junk that the narrator constantly devours. Her rate of consumption makes her inexplicable relationship with dirt feel almost satirical, as if Reyes were ironically refracting the deficient diet of the Argentine poor by suggesting that they eat the material base of their condition: land itself. Maybe then something will change.

At the novel’s very beginning, the narrator says, “Mamá stays here. In my house. In the earth.” Our narrator struggles to preserve her murdered mother’s proximity so that the latter’s life might not be forgotten, so that justice might remain possible, because dirt ties her to the absent. The traces of brutality that infect daily life can only be interpreted (literally) from below; her cop boyfriend cannot understand the violent histories that envelop the narrator, her family, and her friends. He reduces those subject to such histories to otherness by insulting them, calling them “estos negros.” Sanches’s use of “scum” here fails to fully relay the racialized connotations of the Spanish (literally, “those blacks”).

In Eartheater, locality—determined by the dirt the central character eats, the ground she walks—is the only true solution to the cycle of violence. Even so, Reyes does not offer a neat tale of redemption. The narrative ends when the femicidal father returns to save the main character’s life, and she says: “Twice I’d seen my old man kill.” The two killings were undeniably different—opposed, even—but murder nonetheless. The narrator’s departure, her flight from the neighborhood, interrupts but does not definitively end this cycle. Violence continues, and Reyes reminds us that individuals, no matter their gifts or nobility, cannot modify structures when acting alone.

If Aira undoes the legend of Argentina as a leisurely Eden, then Reyes does so twice over, turning Buenos Aires into a grim inferno of destruction and treason. An uncomfortable history comfortably forgotten undermines yet again whatever pastoral sense of benevolent calm existed in the US conception of Latin America.

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG is not an expert on the subject, but his observation (which may be unfair or incorrect in whole or in part) is that, according to the accounts PG has read in recent years, many second and third-world nations share some similar characteristics.

  1. They are either currently governed by dictatorships or have a 20th Century history of being governed by dictatorships with any sort of democracy being new and less-than-perfect.
  2. Often, outsiders (beneficiaries of colonial power or capitalists exploiting local individuals or resources) are blamed either explicitly or implicitly for some or all of the problems in their societies and governance.
  3. Living standards are lower than in first-world countries and writers portraying these countries either blame western/colonial history for current problems or otherwise show resentment toward individuals or groups that have had the benefits that accompany residence in first-world countries AKA “the rich” or “those who are richer than most in my country”.

PG understands that he has lived his life in what some regard as the most-heinous of Western Exploitational Nations, the United States.

However, to the best of PG’s knowledge, he has never personally benefitted from the exploitation that took place in any second or third-world nation. Neither he nor any member of his family of origin inherited any wealth or power. PG knows a lot about his ancestors and doesn’t think any of them had inherited wealth or oppressed the American Indians or others in this nation or in their nations of origin.

Prior to settling in the United States, none of PG’s ancestors were wealthy by the standards of their day and place. None were rulers of anything outside of their home and small land holdings. On one line, some male ancestors attended one of the colleges at Oxford, but it was for the purpose of becoming ministers which is what they did after they finished their studies. Then, as now, earning a living as a minister is not one of the better ways to become rich and pass riches down to your children.

Nobody killed any Native Americans. Some of PG’s ancestors were, however, killed by Native Americans.

Any money that existed in PG’s family of origin in the Twentieth Century was earned, not inherited and disappeared in the Great Depression. Nothing tangible was inherited by PG’s parents (who are both deceased after lives spent working hard to support their family, including PG).

From his family of origin, PG inherited a Protestant work ethic and, from his mother, a degree of intelligence.

Prior to college, PG attended either isolated country schools in the American West or typical midwestern small-town schools. Less than 10% of PG’s graduating class in high school finished college. Less than 20% tried to go to college.

With the help of large scholarships, student loans and working 15-40 hours per week while he was in college, PG graduated from what many would characterize as a good school. That helped him get a good job when he graduated and, eventually, to attend law school.

To the best of his knowledge, neither PG nor any member of PG’s family going back a long way has ever exploited anyone of a different race or ethnic origin for any purpose. Definitely nobody got rich doing so. Most definitely, PG has never inherited anything tangible from his ancestors. He did inherit a work ethic and a tradition of attending church, each of which he values.

Thus, PG has never felt any white guilt or guilt for being an American or sense that he owes a particular ethnic group any recompense or help other than general Christian charity towards those who have less than he has regardless of their race or ethnic origin.

21 thoughts on “This Review Should Not Exist”

  1. Whis is Latin America poor?
    Dozens of books out there present a hundred theories. They break down into three main categories: geographical (ala GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL), socio/cultural, and political. Economic history rarely gets addressed.

    Today everything is political, preferably anti-capitalism, and it is always better to blame outsiders. Spain, England, gringos. France? Rarely. Themselves? Never. (That is left for local political screeds up north.) And of course, pre-columbian or even pre 20th history doesn’t matter. No attention to local wars (what TRIPLE ALLIANCE WAR?), revolutions, or how some of the more vibrant economies on the planet ran themselves into the ground in the service of populism.

    By now, boring. Same old same old.

    Not terribly useful for story fodder.
    Unless you’re interested in a near future dystopian cautionary tale or an alternate history where Bolivar died young and didn’t screw up half the countries through autocratic mismanagement. A world were Gran Colombia became a counter to the euros and, later, the gringos.
    Now *that* might be interesting.

    Still wouldn’t stop the op’s rants, though.
    Humans will be humans.
    Every day, I appreciate the Ferengi more and more. 😀

    • I might be able translate it for you if I knew your location/native language. Culture doesn’t always travel.

      • It *is* english.
        It is the context that carries the meaning.

        Ferengis come from Star Trek, back when Star Trek was good (90’s); about story and thoughtfulness, not “the message” or “educating the viewer”. Just good clean fun.

        Original intended as one-dimensional villains in early STNG they became a delightfully alien species in DS9 that actually embodied some of the best features of real humans alonfside some of the worst.

        The culture was revealed to be totally transactional, darwinian, individualistic but also communitarian, caring, thoughtful and goal oriented. They saw the federation types as preening holier than thou hypocrites and above all untrustworthy. Humans are despicable for comitting the greatest sin in their culture: breaking contracts. ( A deal is a deal. Caveat emptor. etc)

        They never fought wars (though skirmishes happpen), stayed scrupulously neutral in others’ conflicts and happily act as intermediaries as long as it offers opportunity for trade and profit. Theft is rare and severely punished, requiring full restitution plus penalties. Riots and vandalism are inconceivable: no profit. They are traders and inventors not warriors or proseletizers and they accept folks as they are. Their leaders are businessmen and commerce is literally their religion.
        Above all tbey are what they are and proud of it. Values oriented even though their values aren’t popular on TV these days. And willing to question and reevalute the application of tbose values.

        No saints but no villains either. And lots and lots of fun to watch.

        In a field where “aliens” are just humans with makeup (and nowhere near as alien as actual human cultures of the past like Romans or Mayans) the Ferengi culture is truly alien yet fully human and it demands thought from viewers. Open minds are required to see them as a valid, functional and stable society and not comic relief. (Though several episodes are absolutely funny.)

        Some of the best writing and acting in any SF show ever.
        Then again, DS9 stands head and shoulders above most SF shows. A true master class in writing.

        • Right in front of you.
          Look at what the thread is about and contrast the OP mindset vs a society of ethical capitalists. People will always do what they think is best for *them*. Difference is Ferengi don’t pretend to be anything else. No hypocrisy.

          It is meaningless to gripe about humans being human; it achieves nothing so, as the OP says, the piece shouldn’t exist.

          Not a total waste for me, though.
          Got me to go back and watch me some DS9. It’s been a few years.

        • The Ferengi would never whine that nobody cared what they wrote. They would improve the product, study the market, and come back as strong players. They would never self-identify as weak and beg people to buy their stuff.

  2. 1. They are either currently governed by dictatorships or have a 20th Century history of being governed by dictatorships with any sort of democracy being new and less-than-perfect.

    The difference between the US and the “many second- and third-world nations” being that our history of “being governed by dictatorships with any sort of democracy being new and less-than-perfect” goes back to the 18th century, not just the 20th. As events just about a year ago demonstrate, we’re still in the “less-than-perfect” phase. That’s the very nature of representative democracy; the primary distinction from theocracy and authoritarian systems is that representative democracy gives at least lip service to the self-knowledge that it is less than perfect — that is, its hubris is a different variety.

    I do not read Spanish, whether “classical” or “Latin American,” so my knowledge of Latin American literature is limited to translations of Terra Nostra and One Hundred Years of Solitude and The War of the End of the World and The House of the Spirits and so on. That said, there’s a disturbingly similar thread in American literature, just time-shifted. (Note to the unwary: Do not get me started on literary theory. You will regret it. I’m a serial theorist; and, if released on my own recognizance, I’ll probably murder literary sacred cows again! Bwahahahahaha! Or perhaps that should be a more-genteel, not-quite-fashionable-London-club, somewhere near the Court of St James, guffaw…)

  3. What struck me, aside from all that has been mentioned in comments above, is that the writer seems to think that American writers are treated better by the traditional publishing cartel. Yeah, right….

  4. I really don’t care what Latin American authors write. I wish them well, and presume the 550 million people south of the Rio Grande offer an incredible opportunity and a strong demand for their books. Best of luck.

  5. I agree with the title of the piece.
    The rest is standard college undergraduate.revolutionary stuff.
    ( “Come the revolution…” )
    Unworthy of even *my* time.
    (No lower bar exists.)

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