Mexican novel at the end of the twentieth century: An introduction, The
Medina, Manuel F
As the twentieth century comes to a close, Mexican narrative attempts to review, revise, re-invent, and renew the narrative innovation that proliferated during the 1970s. During that period, writers showed a marked preference for techniques that included spatial and chronological fragmentation and the use of neologisms taken mostly from the language of a sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll culture. During the 1990s, novelists tried to cross real and virtual borders in an attempt to keep pace with the cultural conversation taking place since the late sixties. Writers concentrated their best efforts on telling a story rather than on trying to amaze the reader with excessive narrative experimentation.
John S. Brushwood notices this tendency in the Mexican novel since the midseventies: “And one other phenomenon-one of technique rather than of theme-seems important: A return to storytelling with narrative strategies simpler than those to which we have been accustomed” (14). Sara Sefchovich, in Mexico, pals de ideas, pais de novelas, interprets this lack of technical innovation as a step backward for contemporary Mexican narrative. She explains the current state of the novel as reflecting a lack of social and political commitment among writers:[A mediados de la decada de los ochenta, c]omo paradoja, en lugar de sumirse en la degradacion, en lugar de sumirse en la miseria y la degradacion, en lugar de dar cuenta de la desesperacion y la crisis, recupero su calidad de entretenimiento, escape, diversion y facilidad para un publico que supo responder entusiasmado a las posibilidades que abrio este modo de escribir. (225) [In the mid-eighties, als a paradox, instead of getting involved in degradation, instead of getting involved with the misery and degradation, instead of reporting on the desperation and [economic] crisis, [the Mexican novel] recovered its place as entertainment, fun, a means of escaping, and became completely open to an audience that knew how to be enthusiastically receptive to the possibilities offered by this way of writing.
Sefchovich asseverates that narrators have ceased challenging the reader and therefore have obstructed the progress reached in the development of new ways of telling:
Un poco de sexo, otro de amor, algo de historia y algo de chisme politico son la formula para elaborar estas obras visuales, sin profundidad textual, de una sola lectura, sin recursos tecnicos, similar al pais que las vio nacer y al que relatan, con una y unica version official de la historia que es la misma que el discurso politico ha dado. (227)
A little bit of sex, a little bit of love, some history, and some political gossip are the formula for creating these visual works that lack textual depth, can be read quickly, and have no technical resources, which is similar to the country in which where they were produced. They promote the official version of history written by the ruling political discourse.
Alice Reckley notices two trends in contemporary Mexican narrative: one favors narrative innovation, and the other pursues traditional ways of telling. Reckley interprets these narrative techniques-called by Sefchovich “simple” and not politically or socially committed-as writers’ attempts to reach a larger audience with strong social messages:
The recent Mexican novel, from the 1960’s through the present, generally manifests two tendencies: more accessible plot structures (as contrasted with plot structures in the New Novel and in Hispanic America in general)–in some cases to communicate social concerns-and, on the other hand, the continuing tendency of complex narrative techniques which require that the reader participate in the development of a more complex story line. (1)
Danny J. Anderson explains the apparent preference for traditional narrative techniques as a transformation in the way of presenting reality. He asserts that many of these novels use their techniques and themes or, in some instances, a combination of both as a means of projecting a partial or incomplete reality. The novels Anderson explores suggest that those groups who control power also dominate the presentation and construction of reality. This way of representing reality weakens the traditional idea of continuity and safety generally associated with it: “The represented social context in each of these novels is readily identifiable, yet they each use thematics, technique or a combination of the two to place in the foreground the partial and incomplete construction of reality that they project” (Siglo 17).
In response to social circumstances, the Mexican novel has continued to experiment with narrative techniques but has adopted a renewed emphasis on the presentation of important themes. It is more likely that the novel that resists closure best represents the integration of experimental narrative strategies with a socially committed message. Generally, these texts employ devices similar to those used in detective novels that supposedly provide answers to the classical queslions regarding a crime: who? what? when? where? how? However, in contemporary Mexican narrative, many novels that originally pose these questions never answer them, or at least do not answer them satisfactorily. In Morir en el golfo, by Hector Aguilar Camin, the narrator/protagonist searches in an archive for the true story behind a series of politically motivated murders. Regardless of his access to a large amount of data, the narrator fails to find the truth because what is “true” cannot be found; it does not exist. Different groups fabricate their own credible, acceptable, and logical versions: they all could be true; they all could be false. In the end, we know that crimes were committed, but we have serious doubts regarding the intellectual and physical identities of the murderer(s), the motive behind the murders, and the time and place at which they occurred. Camin’s novel suggests that discourse creates what eventually becomes the official history of any event. By resisting traditional closure and reviewing the detective novel’s standards, Morir en el golfo serves as an example of a text that simultaneously voices social concerns and experiments with narrative techniques.
The contemporary Mexican novel also looks into the nation’s past in search of answers to the present. In the last twenty years, we observe a considerable increase in the publication of historical novels or of novels that use history as a narrative framework. The celebration of the five-hundred-year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in America accounts in part for this proliferation of narrative production. However, those novels that deal with the discovery, conquest, and colonization of America represent only a small portion of the total number of historical novels published recently. These revisionist narratives usually question the “official history” and propose alternative explanations of events. Writers strip the larger-than-life status often given to national heroes, bestowing on them more lifelike and therefore more believable characteristics. In Gonzalo Guerrero (1981), Eugenio Aguirre traces the beginning of an ethnically mixed Mexican heritage to the son of a Mayan woman and Gonzalo Guerrero, a Spanish explorer who deserted the Empire’s army and adopted a Mayan way of life. Aguirre rewrites the traditional and official version of the first mestizo’s being the result of rape and invasion associated with Hernan Cortes and La Malinche. It replaces this version with one that portrays the first mestizo as a product of the love between a Spaniard and an Indian.
Alice Reckley notices the presence of nostalgia as a constant theme in the contemporary Mexican novel and explains it as the writer’s desire to mitigate the pain caused by lack of a stable identity. These novelists try to confront the people with their past in order to help them understand the present and prepare for the future:
Nostalgic novelization is an expression of (a response to) pain, in varying degrees, but always of pain, by shifting (unstable) identities in Mexico’s present. Mexico’s recent nostalgic novelization returns home to every aspect of Mexican life … in order to purge, reorder, reevaluate or simply to confront the specters that live not in Mexico’s past, but in her present. (171).
The feminist movement and the social agenda it proposed have allowed for the inclusion of women writers among Mexico’s most respected literary voices. In fact, during the last fifteen years, novels written by women rank as top bestsellers: Demasiado amor, by Sara Sefchovich; Como agua para chocolate, 1989), by Laura Esquivel; and Arrancame la vida (1985), by Angeles Mastretta. Due to the reading audience’s demands, publishers have introduced new editions of several novels by Elena Poniatowska, Silvia Molina, Rosa Nissan, Carmen Boullosa, and Guadalupe Loaeza, to name just a few. In many of these narratives, the female protagonists appropriate strategies of empowerment traditionally controlled by men; by so doing, they militantly confront the obsolete conformity of the status quo.
Silvia Molina’s La familia vino del norte (1987) questions the values and ways of an upper-middle-class family whose main object is maintaining the appearance of distinction and wealth while cloaking their secrets from outsiders. The principal storyline relates the tale of a supposedly heroic revolutionary general whose valorous military record has contributed greatly to the family’s prestige. After conducting detailed historical research, Dorotea, the novel’s protagonist and narrative voice, writes a revisionist version of the general’s life and actions, revealing a man full of human passions and defects-one who betrayed his followers and, with his family’s assistance, hid from the enemy for a year in order to save his own life. A woman rewrites history, and the military hero loses his mythical revolutionary glory.
Sara Sefchovich’s bestseller, Demasiado amor, applies humor to her incisive exploration of Mexico as a combination of geographical space, human relationships, and social behavior. In this novel, the protagonist uses her body as a means of accumulating personal capital. The originality and freshness of an otherwise ancient account rest in that Beatriz takes advantage of the male-dominated system; she assumes her pre-determined role as object of desire, but she does not allow any man to profit from her work as a prostitute.
Voices previously silenced, especially those belonging to subaltern groups like gays and lesbians, have started to appropriate narrative space previously denied them. Luis Zapata’s landmark work in contemporary Mexican narrative, El vampiro de la colonia Roma, started the trend back in 1979; since then, writers have published a greater number of novels dealing with homosexual desire. I offer as examples La hermana secreta de Angelica Maria (1989), also written by Zapata; A tu intocable persona (1995), by Gonzalo Valdes Medellin; and En la alcoba de un mundo (1992). by Pedro Angel Palou. Amora (1989), by Rosamaria Roffiel, and Dos mujeres (1990), by Sara Levi Calderon, stand out as the first instances of the lesbian novel in contemporary Mexico. Both writers attempt to educate the reader on what it means to be lesbian within a repressed, conservative socity
The articles included in the present issue explore each of these trends and provide a more detailed analysis and wider spectrum of the current tendencies of Mexican narrative as it enters a new century. Danny Anderson and Debra Castillo study the reader’s experience and the close relationship between theme and technique as narrative strategy. Anderson studies the novels written by Jorge Volpi, a member of the “Generacion del Crack,” composed mostly of writers born in the sixties who set out to rescue narrative from the triviality and “lightness” into which it had submerged. Volpi’s project to avoid banality and place literature back into its proper place includes publishing texts in which readers can explore all the possibilities of knowledge. Anderson analyzes Volpi’s strategies in detail and explains his attempts to involve the reader in a search for knowledge through narrative devices: “More specifically, for Volpi, the novel is a vehicle for knowledge about identity in action, and he places readers in the position of observing the laws of human behavior at work” (15).
Debra Castillo concentrates her analysis on La novela virtual (1998), by Gustavo Sainz. As long as thirty years ago, critics included Sainz as part of “La generacion de la Onda” (The New Wave Generation) that set out to radically transform narrative practices. Back then, Sainz incorporated neologisms into his texts and utilized speech patterns taken up by Mexican youth of the 1960s, and so introduced readers to that subculture. Castillo affirms that Sainz has never ceased to experiment with narrative form and style, and she reads his novel as an example of her affirmation. She interprets Sainz’s latest work as a move from the 60s, where he attentively reads the signs of the times, to a more “aggressively contemporary” hypertextual one (34). The novel deals with the role e-mail plays in the literary world:
Sainz’s novel explicitly inserts itself into the exploration of the effects of this e-revolution on the novelistic form, on the writerly identity, and on the rethinking of thematic development. Although in a different sense from that adduced by Barthes, the e-mail transmissions attributed to Camila also comprise a meta-autobiography in their offering of the computer age’s temporary rehearsal of an assumed identity. (26)
Cynthia Duncan and Robert Irwin each explore the limits of gender representation, an issue that Javier Duran takes further by understanding history as a mechanism whereby women may discover their voices as independent from utopian schemes and models. Duncan addresses the issues of gender identity and desire and the problems that originate when presented through a woman’s voice. She explores the “complex task of creating an uniquely feminine voice for self expression in their texts, regardless of whether their work is meant to speak for women’s experiences in general or one woman’s experience in particular” (37). Duncan asserts that, in spite of heated debate and the progress achieved by women’s liberation, the representation of feminine sexuality and desire, particularly in literature, still represents a very difficult task for female writers. Tradition dictates that women must appear as desirable objects rather than act as desiring subjects. Duncan discusses and analyzes three contemporary Mexican novels that speak directly to the issue of how feminine desire and madness intertwine in response to the construction of a gendered identity in the text: Demasiado amor (1990), by Sara Sefchovich; Ives (1995), by Elena Garro; and Y si yo fuera Susana San Juan… (1998), by Susana Pagano. She elaborates on the importance of these works as representing women’s writing in contemporary Mexico and deduces that women must alienate themselves from the “rigidly structured, unaccommodating and cruel world” as a consequence of subverting the patriarchal order that forbids women sexual subjectivity and liberation (47).
Robert McKee Irwin analyzes sexual roles and play in Salvador Novo’s memoir, La estatua de sal (1998), which exposes Mexico’s 1940s homosexual underworld. Irwin cites the importance of this text, which includes graphic accounts of Novo’s often wild adventures, because it appears forty years before same-sex acts “meekly began to take form in the public imagination with the publication of Mexico’s first novels overtly about homosexuality” (126). He maintains that this mid-century memoir uses role-playing and humor as a means of revising traditional views of homoerotic desire held by heterosexuals.
Javier Duran asserts that contemporary women’s narrative shows a preference for discrediting the possibility of utopia in an effort to find alternative spaces in which to voice their ethical and social demands. He analyzes Cielos de la tierra (1997), by Carmen Boullosa, as a novel that demands that readers re-evaluate utopia and renegotiate memory and the national imaginary. Duran argues that Boullosa creates a new utopian space built upon language, history, and memory, and which offers the reader not only a triple view of Mexico but also an opportunity to glimpse the future and its possibilities.
Roxanne Davila and Douglas Weatherford examine how Salvador Novo and Ignacio Solares, respectively, research the archives of Mexican history in search of their stories. Solares reads the Mexican Revolution searching for answers to both present and future difficulties. Novo reads Mexico City as a continuing time/space experience in which past and present meet and co-exist. Davila studies the presentation of Mexico City as an urban palimpsest in Salvador Novo’s 1946 chronicle, Nueva grandeza mexicana. She proposes that, through the text’s main narrative subject, Novo portrays a literary view of Mexico City and therefore “assumes the role of observer, historian, and tour guide for the reader” (107). Novo’s urban center revises the city’s official history by incorporating the street’s popular culture into its identity. In Nueva grandeza mexicana, the readers/walkers visit national monuments, pulquerias, taquerias, cabarets, and other places where the masses gather. Davila claims that, by emphasizing time and space, Novo displays the city as a process and a practice that defines itself as a continually changing, “ongoing time/space event” (122).
Douglas Weatherford examines three of Ignacio Solares’s Mexican Revolution novels, Madero el Otro (1989), La noche de Angeles (1991), and Columbus (1996). He maintains that Solares’s reading of the Revolution testifies to “the author’s own obsession with finding answers in the past.” Solares examines Mexican History with a capital “H,” incorporating its characters and events into endof-the-century novels that provide examples of past mistakes in the hope that people will avoid repeating them and instead build a better future: “Solares returns to the violence that brought Mexico into the twentieth century as way of exploring ethical models upon which contemporary readers can build a foundation for a more just and humane future.” His choices of Fernando I. Madero and Felipe Angeles as main characters reflect his goal of inviting readers to remember the sacrifices of two men who imagined “an alternative to violence, hatred, and corruption” (90).
In our articles for this issue, Alberto Ruy Sanchez, Mark Hernandez, and I each explore the concept of borders and their shifting nature, as well as their ramifications for national identity. Ruy Sanchez, Mexican writer and literary critic, elucidates the true meaning of the term border, commenting on its arbitrary nature. He addresses issues of citizenship, nationalism, and identity that link writers to their homelands and the expectations placed on them by critics. He successfully argues against these expectations by questioning what we should expect from writers who have immigrated from their homelands-like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Alvaro Mutis, from Columbia-and who have been established in their adopted countries for decades. Ruy Sanchez applauds Mexican literature’s current trend in inquiring beyond the limits of the Spanish and Indian heritage as the only roots of Mexican identity. He declares that he has found “the true meaning of the word cosmopolitan” during his stay in France, thanks to his contacts with people from many areas of the world and to his visits to Africa and the rest of Europe (67). As a result, he believes he has become a better writer and found a narrative voice that cannot help but surpass Mexico’s borders. Writers have, or should have, no borders limiting their spaces and creations.
In the last essay in this collection, Mark Hernandez examines El gran pretender (1992), by Luis Humberto Crosthwaite, novelist and short-story writer from the border town of Tijuana, Baja California. This novel presents the history of the cholo community in Tijuana and narrates the rise and fall of El Saico. Mark Hernandez affirms that, in this case, the narrative voice shows how patriarchal society’s internal values, in addition to other forms of repression, contribute directly to a loss of community.
My own article on Rosa Nissan’s narrative addresses how this Mexican-Jewish or Jewish-Mexican author writes and imagines the gap between her personal borders, the lines that delimit her Jewish and Mexican identities. Nissan’s novels posit that, instead of occupying two different spaces, the two cultures should live between the borders currently separating them. Nissan addresses equally Mexicans and Mexican Jews and confronts Mexico’s long-established traditions of anti-Semitism and patriarchy. Through her narrative construct, she invites Mexicans to look beyond stereotypes and to accept Mexican Jews as national equals. By challenging and questioning their traditions, she invites Jews to open up and allow themselves to leave behind traditional repressive spaces. In a similar way, I hope that the articles in this volume will encourage readers to consider how reading shapes them and to imagine new ways of reading. Furthermore, I hope that the conversation begun here will lead both readers and writers to explore beyond their typical spaces, further stretching the borders that separate different literatures and identities.
Aguilar Camin, Hector. Morir en el golfo. Mexico City: Cal y Arena, 1985.
Aguirre, Eugenio. Gonzalo Guerrero. 1980. Mexico City: SEP, 1986.
Anderson, Danny J. “Cultural Conversation and Constructions of Reality: Mexican Narrative and Literary Theories after 1968.” Siglo XX/20th Century 8.1-2 (1990): 11-30.
Brushwood, John S. “Literary Nostalgia and Economic Disaster: Recent Mexican Fiction.” El Foro Mexicano 5.2 (1985): 13-17.
Esquivel, Laura. Como agua para chocolate. Mexico City: Planets, 1989.
Levi Calder6n, Sara. Dos mujeres. Mexico City: Diana, 1990.
Mastretta, Angeles. Arrancame la vida. Mexico City: Oceano, 1985.
Palou, Pedro Angel. En la alcoba de un mundo. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Economics, 1992.
Reckley, Alice. Looking Ahead to the Past: Nostalgia in the Recent Mexican Novel. Diss. U of Kansas, 1985. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1985. 86-08439.
Roffiel, Rosamaria. Aurora. Mexico City: Planets, 1989.
Sefchovich, Sara. Demasiado amor. Mexico City: Planets, 1990.
– Mexico, pats de ideas, pais de novelas: una sociologia de la literatura mexicana. Mexico City: Grijalbo, 1987.
Valdes Medellin, Gonzalo. A tu intocable persona. Mexico City: Daimon, 1995.
Zapata, Luis. La hermana secreta de Angelica Maria. Mexico City: Grijalbo, 1979.
– El vampiro de la colonia Roma. Mexico City: Cal y Arena, 1989.
Manuel F Medina
University of Louisville
Copyright Studies in the Literary Imagination Spring 2000
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