Killer Books

[ Latin American Studies ]

Killer Books

Writing, Violence, and Ethics in Modern Spanish American Narrative

By Aníbal González

How Spanish American writers have reflected ethically in their works about writing’s relation to violence and about their own relation to writing.



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6 x 9 | 188 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-71808-1

Writing and violence have been inextricably linked in Spanish America from the Conquest onward. Spanish authorities used written edicts, laws, permits, regulations, logbooks, and account books to control indigenous peoples whose cultures were predominantly oral, giving rise to a mingled awe and mistrust of the power of the written word that persists in Spanish American culture to the present day.

In this masterful study, Aníbal González traces and describes how Spanish American writers have reflected ethically in their works about writing's relation to violence and about their own relation to writing. Using an approach that owes much to the recent "turn to ethics" in deconstruction and to the works of Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas, he examines selected short stories and novels by major Spanish American authors from the late nineteenth through the twentieth centuries: Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera, Manuel Zeno Gandía, Teresa de la Parra, Jorge Luis Borges, Alejo Carpentier, Gabriel García Márquez, and Julio Cortázar. He shows how these authors frequently display an attitude he calls "graphophobia," an intense awareness of the potential dangers of the written word.

  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. Killer Books: Writers, Writing, and Ethics in Spanish America
  • Part I. Abuses
    • Chapter 1. Writing and Child Abuse in Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera's "La hija del aire"
    • Chapter 2. Silvina's Fall: Manuel Zeno Gandía's Epicurean Ethics of Writing in La charca
    • Chapter 3. Ifigenia's Choice: Teresa de la Parra's Demonic Option
  • Part II. Admonitions
    • Chapter 4. From Fission to Fiction: Ethical Chain Reactions in Jorge Luis Borges's "The Garden of Forking Paths"
    • Chapter 5. Ethics and Theatricality in Alejo Carpentier's The Harp and the Shadow
    • Chapter 6. Shared Guilt: Writing as Crime in Julio Cortázar's "Press Clippings"
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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La letra con sangre entra.
Las letras no embotan la lanza.
—Traditional Spanish sayings

The letter kills, but the spirit gives life.
—Saint Paul, 2 Corinthians 3:6

In a well-known passage of the Divine Comedy that may be a gloss of the Pauline verse, Dante Alighieri recounts the heartbreaking story of Paolo and Francesca, who fell in love and kissed while reading a book together, at which moment they were found and killed in a vengeful rage by Francesca's husband. As Francesca's tormented ghost tells Dante, "Galeotto fu il libro e chi lo scrisse: / quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante" (A Galleot was the book and he who wrote it; we read no further in the book that day; Inferno V, 137-138). The term Galeotto, as Charles Singleton notes in his commentary, referred to the knight Gallehault in the Arthurian tale of Lancelot of the Lake, a version of which Paolo and Francesca were reading. Knowing of Lancelot's love for Queen Guinevere, King Arthur's wife, Gallehault arranged for Lancelot and the queen to meet, and, in the course of that interview, urged Guinevere to kiss Lancelot, thus beginning the guilty love between the two. "From the part he played on this occasion," says Singleton, "the name of Gallehault ('galeotto'), like that of Pandarus ('pander'), became a synonym for 'go-between'" (94-95). However, the book Paolo and Francesca were reading was more than just the intermediary for their illicit love; it was also the cause of their deaths. To come upon a story by a man of letters about a "killer book" may seem strange at first. Precisely because he was a writer, however, Dante knew whereof he spoke. As the citation from Saint Paul reminds us, he was not the first writer, nor would he be the last, to view writing in such a sinister light.

More than six centuries later, a Spanish American author and critic who had of course read both Saint Paul and Dante wrote a book that voiced similar sentiments in a wholly different context. La ciudad letrada (The lettered city) was published posthumously in 1984 after Angel Rama's untimely death in an air disaster, and it soon became one of the most influential works of contemporary Spanish American literary criticism. In an article commenting on La ciudad letrada's widespread influence, Carlos J. Alonso took particular note of Rama's pessimistic view of the written word's effect on Spanish American society and underscored how the Uruguayan critic "demonizes" writing:

Rama's achievement in La ciudad letrada was to put the continent's cultural history beyond Good and Evil, so to say, not by suspending the relevance of moral categories—as in Nietzsche—but rather by collapsing the two categories into one: that is, by subsuming all writers and intellectuals under the demonic rubric of "letrado." In Rama's ciudad letrada there are no heroes, only letrados who are irrevocably and irremediably tainted—although to a larger or a lesser extent, to be sure—by their contact with the written word. ("Rama y sus retoños" 286)

But Rama's gloomy view of the letrado, and of writing as a whole, is, as I have suggested, only a recent instance in a long tradition of distrust of the written word in Western culture, a distrust that often goes beyond mere logocentrism to become a virtual "graphophobia."

By this rather cacophonous term, I allude not so much to a fear of writing that might lead one to avoid it (which clearly does not happen with most authors), but to an attitude towards the written word that mixes respect, caution, and dread with revulsion and contempt. This attitude is displayed by literary critics (as one might expect) as well as by authors. Most evident in self-reflexive or metaliterary texts, it is, of course, profoundly conflict ridden. However, despite the name I have chosen to give it, it is not a pathological condition but a normal, indeed necessary, component of all thought about writing.

In some respects, graphophobia is analogous to the mixture of antipathy and fascination that Edward Said has posited on the part of some orientalists towards their subject matter (Orientalism 150-151ff.). A friend of the French poet Victor Hugo once remarked about Hugo's attitude towards books from and about the Orient that "he doesn't like them, but he makes use of them" (Schwab 363). Raymond Schwab further observed that Hugo, "faced with the Asian immensities, . . . generally saw in them not images of liberating plains nor . . . of exalting summits, but rather images of a dark and vertiginous abyss" (Schwab 364).

Similarly, graphophobia is haunted by a sense of writing's vertiginous quality, its utter alienness. Writing's strangeness, however, unlike that of Asia for the orientalists, which was a by-product of Western racism and imperialism, can never be reduced to a comfortable familiarity. The more writers learn about the origins and mechanisms of writing, the less they seem to like what they discover, and the more they recoil from what they have learned. It is as though, in order to write, one need be blind not only to the precise mechanisms of signification and their paradoxes, but also to the ethical implications of the act of writing itself.

We are so used to hearing about the virtues of literacy, or about the benefits of the written word, that at first the idea that writing might be viewed otherwise seems odd or eccentric. As Jacques Derrida has shown, however, praise of writing is usually praise of a certain kind of writing, that which obeys the dictates of grammar and thought, becoming merely a vehicle for the expression of ideas and modeling itself on speech. Alongside the paeans to literacy in Western culture, there have always been the paeans to orality, viewed as a "superior" form of language because of its associations with thought and self-presence, which are in turn linked to metaphysical notions such as truth, beauty, and good. Within this hierarchical system, speech is the father, the source of truth and goodness, the lord and master of writing, and the written word is always under suspicion as a potentially subversive, malevolent, and rebellious form of language. From the outset, then, graphophobia is implicit in Western culture.

Graphophobia, however, also arises from the experience of writing, not merely from the ideological exaltation of speech. This experience is generally characterized by a sense of resistance, even of struggle, as writers grapple with the system of material signs that is writing and try to bend it to their will. The modern locus classicus of the experience of writing as hard work (which is shared by most mortals) is the letters of Gustave Flaubert, collected in his Correspondance. But, as Ernst Robert Curtius reminds us, the hard labor—indeed, the suffering—implicit in the act of writing was already noted by Roman and medieval Latin writers. In the Middle Ages, says Curtius,

Many a man wrote poetry groaning and sweating. . . . That composing poetry, especially Latin poetry, which was still regarded by many of Dante's contemporaries as the only genteel variety, was to many a matter of great labor can be seen from the highly popular phrase, the poet will now end the poem or section of it because the Muse has grown weary. What torture writing poetry could be is shown by the epistle of an unknown poet to a young man who is extolled for his cleverness and advised to submit to "the whip of poetry" if he wishes to develop his gifts to the utmost. . . . The author of the Ecbasis captivi admits at the beginning of his work that he had unfortunately spent his youth thoughtlessly, but now, even though it be late, he wishes to improve himself by assiduous work. Hence he writes verses. This banishes sleep and constrains him to a scanty diet. Very often he finds himself scratching his head and biting his nails over his composition; he upon whom lies such a task has renounced sloth. (468-469)

Similar confessions did not abound in Spanish American literature until the twentieth century. Perhaps one of the most heartfelt contemporary declarations of writing as a struggle is César Vallejo's sonnet "Intensidad y altura" (Intensity and height), whose first quatrain reads:

I want to write, but it comes out foam,
I want to say a great deal, but I get stuck;
There's no spoken cipher that's not a sum,
No written pyramid without a core.

Quiero escribir, pero me sale espuma,
quiero decir muchísimo y me atollo;
no hay cifra hablada que no sea suma,
no hay pirámide escrita, sin cogollo.

Suspicion of writing dates from as far back as Plato and resurfaces during periods of cultural and artistic crisis, such as the baroque, romanticism, modernism and high modernism, and—even as it was being exposed and undermined in the work of Derrida and others—postmodernism. Feelings of dread and outright fear associated with the letter go back even further, to the very dawn of writing. They are implicit, for instance, in the cuneiform inscriptions of the warrior kings of Assur and Nineveh, or the later hieroglyphs of the Egyptian pharaohs, which were meant to impress readers with the might and near divinity of the rulers (Martin 44, 102-103). The connection made by these early militaristic cultures between writing and warfare evokes notions not only of discipline and regimentation, but also of writing's links with the body, and particularly with bodily injury and death.

In turn, the fear of writing, because of its association with the disciplinary power of the state, derives from an even more ancient tradition linking writing with magic and with otherworldly powers. As Henri-Jean Martin reminds us, the ancient Egyptians "believed in the creative virtue of words and in their dangerous power," which was why their god of writing, Thot, was also "reputed to be a dangerous magician" (18-19, 103). Martin further marvels at the persistence of similar beliefs even into our age, as evidenced in the destruction of statues and defacement of inscriptions carried out in the name of reform or revolution. "And who among us [he asks rhetorically] has not paused before pronouncing or writing a definitive word?" (19).

In Spanish America after the conquest, as elsewhere around the world, civilization has been persistently linked to writing and letters. Spanish American culture is in fact not an oral culture, although some of its members may not know how to read. Its profoundly literate character, as Angel Rama's La ciudad letrada demonstrates, has paradoxically little to do with literacy rates and more with the fact that this is a society founded on a pervasive utilization of writing and a deep respect for it. In spite of this foundation, or perhaps even because of it, writing was from the very beginning regarded in Spanish America with a mixture of mistrust and awe. This reaction was also largely due to writing's oppressive role during the traumatic events of the conquest, when the predominantly oral indigenous peoples were forced at swordpoint to accept the European invaders' system of graphic representation. At the same time, the Europeans, in a move familiar to colonizers and colonized around the globe, condemned the ideographic or pictographic sign-systems of the Indians as works of the Devil and proceeded to eradicate them through massive book burnings.

Indeed, the Americas experienced the "violence of the letter" in a drastic and overwhelming, utterly physical manner. Not only were the sons of the Indian elites forcibly acculturated and made to learn Latin and Spanish along with the European alphabet, but they, along with their indigenous brethren and the enslaved Africans who were brought soon afterwards, experienced in their very bodies the intense sort of control made possible only through writing: the innumerable edicts, laws, permits, regulations, logbooks, and account books with which the Europeans attempted to keep their New World subjects, as well as their own people, in line. As Roberto González Echevarría reminds us, during colonial times the (phallic) symbol of the letter of the law, and of the violence that was visited upon those who disobeyed it, was the picota, or pillory, where "the citizens of the domain were whipped, tortured, shamed, their severed organs put on public display" (Myth and Archive 49).

In this context in which letters and the law were presumed to be inextricably linked, in which writing served as a model for the quasi-military ordering of the world, writers who desired to contest or to resist the law, both in Spain and in its colonies, frequently took recourse to the "magic" or "demonic" tradition of writing, invoking writing's potential to dissemble, confuse, and undo. Although Juan Ruiz's medieval Libro de buen amor (Book of good love, 1330-1334) is an important precursor in this regard, the founding text in this oppositional graphophobic tradition is undoubtedly Fernando de Rojas's La Celestina (1499), written shortly after Columbus reached the New World and when the foundations for Spain's patrimonial and centralizing empire were being laid. The character of the old bawd and go-between Celestina, as González Echevarría convincingly argues, uncovers through the ideological mediation of magic and witchcraft, and by means of the literalization of other characters' rhetoric, the metaphors of physical, bodily violence that underlie language (Celestina's Brood 14-16ff.). The vision of writing and literature that emanates from Rojas's play is deeply pessimistic, based on a denial of language's effectiveness both as a vehicle of dialogue and exchange, and as a means to preserve and transmit moral values (Celestina's Brood 31ff.). The fact that this denial takes place in language, and specifically in writing, can be seen as a further indication of language's paradoxical unreliability.

A similarly profound sense of writing's association with base materiality, moral decay, and political oppression is evident in colonial Spanish American works of the seventeenth century and after: from the Primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615) by the indigenous Andean chronicler Guamán Poma de Ayala, to El Carnero (c. 1638) by the chronicler of New Granada Juan Rodríguez Freyle, to the satiric poetry of Diente del Parnaso (written c. 1690, published 1873) by the Peruvian Juan del Valle y Caviedes, to El Lazarillo de ciegos caminantes (1776) by the Spanish visitador Alonso Carrió de la Vandera, to Spanish America's first self-proclaimed novel, El Periquillo Sarniento (1816) by the Mexican José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi. It must be stressed that the graphophobia displayed by these and other writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did not lead them to avoid writing but was instead made to serve a moralizing purpose in which one form of writing was used to condemn another. By reveling in the scatological and abject facets of writing, these authors implicitly questioned the state-sanctioned equation between letters and the law, or between writing and justice. Ultimately, however, unlike the ever skeptical Fernando de Rojas, whose anarchic and violent view of language placed writing beyond good and evil, most of the writers I have mentioned displayed a Manichaean attitude towards the letter. In other words, writing, although tainted by mortality and malevolence, was for them a key weapon in the struggle between good and evil. These authors' pessimism about the nature of the written word was tempered by their appeal to logocentrism, embodied either in religious ideology or, during and after the eighteenth century, in a metaphysical appeal to Reason. Although they saw evil at work in writing and in language as a whole, it was a lesser, controllable evil, like the diablo cojuelo of the baroque Spanish satirist Vélez de Guevara, a lame devil caught in a bottle, and no match for the greater forces of transcendent good to which most writers claimed allegiance in one form or another.

This dynamic continued in Spanish America during the so-called national period, or roughly the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century. By then, political ideology had replaced religion as the logos that kept writing's corrosiveness in check. A liberal and anticlerical writer such as Ricardo Palma in his delightful Tradiciones peruanas (Peruvian traditions, 1872-1883), for instance, would often ironically allude to the Devil in his texts in order to scandalize his more conservative and religious compatriots. Parodying the conservatives, in the introduction to "El alcalde de Paucarcolla" (The mayor of Paucarcolla), Palma grumbles:

One must agree that what they call civilization, enlightenment, and progress in our century has done us a disservice by suppressing the Devil. In colonial times, when His grace went around, feeling more self-important than Cardinal Camarlengo, and chatting with the progeny of Adam, there was barely a case of suicide or incestuous love every fifty years or so. Out of fear and respect for the hot coals and molten lead, sinners agonized in uncertainty before committing crimes that today are common occurrences. Today the Devil has nothing to do, for good or ill, with us miserable mortals; the Devil has already gone out of fashion, and not even the friars mention him in the pulpit; the Devil is dead and buried.

If, by one of God's miracles, I am again elected to Congress, I shall have to present a new law to resuscitate the Devil and return him to the full performance of his ancient duties. We need the Devil; give him back to us. When the Devil lived and there was a hell, there was less vice and roguery in our land.

In the name of pyrotechnic history and phosphorescent literature, I protest the suppression of the Evil One. To eliminate the Devil is to kill tradition. (Tradiciones peruanas completas 270-271)

Romantic writers in Spanish America, like their European peers, frequently identified with Satan in their works, seeing him as the archetypal rebel and antiauthoritarian figure par excellence. But this was all done mostly in a jocular, satirical spirit, intended to preempt the demonization to which these writers themselves were often subjected by their conservative adversaries. It was a game of masks, and all in good fun. Significantly, despite the attempts by the Argentine romantics to examine the nature of evil embodied in the figure of the dictator or the caudillo (in works such as Esteban Echeverría's "El matadero" [1838], Domingo Faustino Sarmiento's Facundo [1845], and José Mármol's Amalia [1855]), no Spanish American writer until the late nineteenth century ever came close to reflecting as deeply on the links between art and evil as did the Englishman Thomas De Quincey, in his darkly ironic essay On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (1827).

Not until the rise of the Spanish American modernists during the 1880s did the ethical questioning of societal problems, which the sense of graphophobia had been made to serve, begin to be turned inwards, towards literature and writing themselves. Among the many twentieth-century concerns that the modernists inaugurated in Spanish America was precisely that of the ethical implications of art and literature. In their quest to define and justify literature in its own terms (and not according to the other dominant discourses of the age, such as those of law, science, or religion), the Spanish American modernists delved deeply into the mysteries of writing, and like their European symbolist peers, asked probing questions about the way literature was made, about its relation to the individual and to society, and about the power of words to change the world.

Nevertheless, through their contacts with nineteenth-century philology (as exemplified in the works of Ernest Renan, Hyppolite Taine, and Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo, among many others) and their experiences as journalists (which most of them were at one time or another), the modernists eventually arrived at a view of literature that contradicted their strongly held aestheticist beliefs. Already the modernists, emulating Flaubert and the French Parnassians, had accepted and loudly proclaimed the notion that writing (particularly in its "artistic" form, that is, as literature) was hard work, an experience often approximating agony. Both philology and journalism reinforced this view of writing as labor and presented the modernists with an even more demystified view of language and writing. To begin with, both discourses viewed language as an object, as a human construct fraught with historical and social connections. But journalism went even further: it undermined the nineteenth-century notion of the author as privileged emitter of his work and, by turning texts into merchandise, subordinated aesthetic value to market value. While philology still saw writing as a transcendent vehicle that enabled readers to link up with the world of ideas, with the logos, journalism (like Rojas's Celestina centuries earlier) constantly displayed writing's gross materiality and its links with the worldly, the criminal, and the excremental. Thus, the modernists wavered, sometimes quite violently, between two extreme views of writing: in the words of Rubén Darío, writing revealed either "the rhythm of the immense mechanics of the heavens" (el ritmo de la inmensa mecánica celeste) or "the horror of literature" (el horror de la literatura; Jiménez, Antología crítica 196, 208).

This back-and-forth movement of the modernists, which was often manifested in a "positive" view of the written word for public consumption and a "negative," graphophobic one in intimate texts, nevertheless gave rise in Spanish America, I would argue, to a true ethics of writing, that is, to a propensity to ask not only how one can use writing as a critical tool or as an instrument of power, but more importantly, why one chooses to write in the first place. If writing is not a neutral, almost ethereal, docile and malleable vehicle, which can be used for either good or evil, but instead is a material entity, heavy and resistant, and "tainted" by its collusion with the state and its attendant violence, as the graphophobic tradition insisted, why on earth would any moral person have anything to do with it? The Platonic branch of the graphophobic tradition also insisted that writing, both as an entity and as an activity, was devoid of moral principles, or rather, that its guiding principles were anarchy and lawlessness. Whether one sees writing as the servant of an oppressive, militaristic state, or, as Plato put it, "dumb characters which have not a word to say for themselves and can not adequately express the truth" (The Works of Plato 445), the question remains: Can writing ever be fully justified?

This question may seem absurd in a practical, commonsense context, since one can immediately enumerate the utilitarian benefits of writing and note how impossible society as we know it would be without the visual representation of language. However, there are numberless writers for whom "to write is an intransitive verb," as Roland Barthes put it (Critical Essays 145). For these "writers-as-artists," who consider writing an end in itself, and who produce the bulk of what, despite all the attempts to avoid it, is still studied and revered as "literature," the question takes on a profound urgency. Is there not danger in placing one's life in the service of so fickle a phenomenon, so dubious an activity? Moreover, does all "literary" or "artistic" use of writing not entail a certain measure of abuse—abuse of writing itself, inasmuch as it should be handled carefully and wisely, like fire or some other potentially destructive force, and abuse by writing, inasmuch as making use of writing for purposes other than those of strict communication implies a culpable and irresponsible ignorance of writing's violent origins and negative powers?

The issue also arises of why the attraction some feel towards writing is so strong that it overpowers all the warnings of common sense and good judgment, as if it were some sort of compulsive or addictive behavior beyond the subject's conscious control. Of course, the notion of the artist (whether painter, musician, or writer) sacrificing everything for the sake of art was already a cliché at the end of the nineteenth century, but also, long before that, literature abounded in cautionary tales—of which Don Quixote is the most famous instance—about the power of writing to alienate both writers and readers, driving them into error and errancy. The Platonic metaphor of writing as both drug and poison is already sufficiently well known (see Derrida, Dissemination 117-128); perhaps it should be joined more explicitly, however, with another: that of writing as addiction.

Is there something addictive about writing that makes it a graphic analogue to "the demon rum," to gambling, or to the white lines of cocaine, and the writer akin to the alcoholic, the gambler, or the junkie? "Writing is an illness we cannot treat but only recover from," remarks anthropologist Stephen A. Tyler, in a metaphor of writing as disease that could refer either to a malarial-type infection or to a more ambiguous mental malady such as addiction ("On Being Out of Words" 5). Tyler, echoing Walter J. Ong, further conjectures that the implied critique of writing (and, I would add, the graphophobia) evidenced in the currently renewed interest in issues of orality and literacy, may be due to the rise of "new technologies of representation," such as the personal computer and the Internet, which promise (or threaten) to do away with the "key notions of 'book,' 'word,' 'reading,' and 'writing'" (Tyler 6-7; Ong, Orality and Literacy 79-81). That may be so in a more general context, but in Spanish America, as I have already pointed out, suspicion of writing runs as deep as the attachment to it and springs not from new technologies but from long-standing grievances that have continued until the present. In the many works of twentieth-century Spanish American narrative that anguish over writing's possible links with evil, the metaphor of writing as addiction underlies four distinct approaches to an ethics of writing. I would like to dwell briefly on these approaches.

Jorge Luis Borges was undoubtedly the main contemporary proponent of the view that writing is so addictive and dangerous that it should be either avoided or severely restricted, and that authors themselves are dubious demiurges who traffic in infamy. The notion of the author as akin to a criminal was first set forth by Borges in Historia universal de la infamia (1935) (published in English as A Universal History of Infamy, 1972). Borges retells in that book the biographies of famous delinquents of history (some of whom were real, and others apocryphal): Jesse James, Monk Eastman, Lazarus Morell, Tom Castro, the Widow Ching, Kotsuké no Suké, and Hákim of Merv. Parodying Hegel's 1830 Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, particularly Hegel's notion of the "great men" who make history, Borges presents us with a mock-heroic rogues' gallery of evildoers, all of whom share not only a propensity for large-scale violence but also an authorial talent for lies and deceit, for creating fictions in order to further their criminal enterprises. The difference between these infamous liars and the law-abiding writers of fiction, Borges suggests, is merely a matter of degree. Significantly, both the written word and the act of writing play important roles in the lives of the criminals Borges describes: the slave rustler Lazarus Morell, we are told, "knew the Scriptures and preached with singular conviction" (Borges, Obras completas 297); the impostor Tom Castro used the letters of the deceased Roger Charles Tichborne to his mother in order to impersonate Tichborne (303); the Widow Ching, who was a female buccaneer, wrote down the rules for piracy "in a precise and laconic style" (307); and Hákim of Merv declared himself a prophet and wrote a sacred text titled The Hidden Rose (324).

In the prologue to A Universal History of Infamy, using largely moral terms, Borges exalts reading over writing: "Reading is, at present, an activity posterior to writing: it is more resigned, more civil, more intellectual" (Obras completas 289). In Borges's works, reading may be a cause as much of torment as of pleasure, but writing is consistently associated with egotism, vanity, deceit, and violence. Witness the nature and fates of such varied Borgesian writer-characters as Yu Tsun, Red Scharlach, Jaromir Hladík, Nils Runeberg, Aurelian the theologian, and Carlos Argentino Danieri, to mention just a few. Two notable exceptions to this rule may be Pierre Menard and Herbert Quain, but both are portrayed more as literary theorists and experimenters than as enthusiastic writers. Herbert Quain's works, we are told, are "admirable, perhaps, for their novelty and for a certain laconic probity, but not for their passion" (Obras completas 461).

Quain is also said to have argued that "readers were already an extinct species" and that "every European is a writer . . . potentially or in fact" (464). This decline of reading, and the correlative increase in writing, leads to aberrations such as that of Yu Tsun in Borges's "El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan" (The garden of forking paths): during World War I, the Chinese-born German spy, despite his imminent capture, is able to communicate to his superiors the name of a city that is to be bombed—Albert—only by murdering the eminent British sinologist Stephen Albert, a fact that appears in the newspapers the next day and is duly noted by German intelligence. On a more comic note, the vice of writing is lambasted in the character of Carlos Argentino Danieri in "El aleph" (The aleph). The buffoonish Danieri (whose name and Italian provenance make him a parody of Dante) is engaged in writing a wordy, potentially infinite, and aesthetically worthless poem titled The Earth.

But perhaps Borges's most awesome portrayal of writing's vacuity and its power to proliferate unceasingly is, of course, "La biblioteca de Babel" (The library of Babel). In this graphophobic nightmare, a dying race of librarians inhabits a seemingly limitless universe of books, most of which cannot be read or deciphered, because they contain all the possible combinations of the letters of the alphabet. This story is but one of several texts in which Borges extols the virtues of textual economy. A desire for scriptural minimalism runs throughout Borges's works, becoming most evident in stories like "The Library of Babel" or in his disparaging comments on the writing of novels in the prologue to Ficciones (Fictions): "A laborious and impoverishing delirium is the composition of vast books, dragging on for five hundred pages an idea whose perfect oral exposition only takes a few minutes" (Obras completas 429). The elliptical quality of Borges's style is well known, and we know that he never wrote any novels by himself (although he collaborated on one with Adolfo Bioy Casares, Un modelo para la muerte [A model for death], 1946). Indeed, Borges's whole narrative oeuvre, although extensive, tended towards ever more compact forms, such as the "short-short stories" collected in El hacedor (The maker, 1960) and scattered throughout his books of poetry. The cliché about Borges's teaching us that writing and reading are very much alike, or are two faces of a common experience of literature, is only partially correct. For Borges, the wholesale conversion of readers into writers was in fact a recent historical development, which he deplored. Readers, who necessarily practice a kind of scriptural asceticism, evidently occupied, in Borges's view, a higher moral and intellectual plane than writers.

Borges's notion of the reader's moral superiority was contested, however, by another Argentine author, Julio Cortázar, who posited instead the complicity between writer and reader and made the reader share in the writer's guilt. The idea of the "lector cómplice" (reader-accomplice) first made its appearance in Cortázar's novel Rayuela (Hopscotch, 1964), where it was viewed in a positive light. Cortázar's reader-accomplices in this book are, in effect, readers-turned-writers, and they help to underpin Hopscotch's supposedly "open" structure, which allows readers to pick and choose, to a limited extent, among the novel's various chapters in order to compose—to write—slightly divergent readings of the text. In Hopscotch, the idea of the reader-accomplice is presented as a liberation of the readers, freeing them from the author's tyranny. If reader-accomplices are felonious here, their felony is the relatively minor one of transgressing artistic boundaries in order to subvert traditional novelistic structures.

Decades later, however, in "Recortes de prensa" (Press clippings) one of his most powerful but least-known short stories, from his late book Queremos tanto a Glenda y otros relatos (1981) (published in English as We Love Glenda So Much and Other Tales, 1983), Cortázar's view of the reader became as gloomy as Borges's view of the writer. In this story, Noemí, an Argentine writer living in Paris, after reading a testimonial text about tortures and "disappearances" in Argentina, responds violently to men's aggression against women. Soon after reading the testimonial text, she comes upon a woman who is being tortured by her husband. Noemí decides to intervene by rescuing her and then helps the tortured woman to turn the tables against her husband by torturing him. Whether this occurs in fact or as Noemí's fantasy the story leaves to the readers to decide. Indeed, "Press Clippings" forces readers to confront a fundamental ethical question about themselves: If writing and reading, however different their relation may have been in the past, are now inextricably linked, are we not all—writers as well as readers—guilty of collaborating in the violence that underlies all writing?

The idea of guilt associated with both reading and writing is central to testimonial narrative, a form of Spanish American writing that tries to pass itself off as orality and that uses graphophobia in order to advance an ideological agenda. In testimonial narratives as varied as Miguel Barnet's Biografía de un cimarrón (The biography of a runaway slave, 1966), Elena Poniatowska's Hasta no verte, Jesús mío (Until I see you, my Jesus, 1969), and Rigoberta Menchú's Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú, y así me nació la conciencia (I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian woman in Guatemala, 1983), writing is condemned because of its association with power and violence, even as it is being utilized. Like the critic Angel Rama in La ciudad letrada, but also like their colonial precursors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, authors of testimonial narratives set up a Manichaean universe in their works, in which writing and literacy are regarded as necessary evils at best, and at worst as extended forms of political and social oppression. However, unlike the colonial texts, with their emphasis on the "demonic" and ambiguous aspects of writing, testimonial narratives seek to escape the contradictions of writing altogether by mimicking orality, the spoken word, and particularly those words spoken by the powerless and the oppressed. Nevertheless, despite their claim to give voice to the voiceless, these works are relentlessly monological and seek to bring readers to their side by playing on the deep-seated sense of guilt about being literate that Cortázar identified in "Press Clippings." Through their appeal to orality, these texts not only seek to produce the impression of immediacy, but also implicitly condemn the ironic distancing and critical reading allowed by the written word. With the best intentions, testimonial texts use ethics as a weapon, forcing readers to judge or be judged, to accept their narrative at face value or risk moral opprobrium. The apparent moral choice offered by testimonial narratives to their readers is in fact no choice at all, since these narratives from the outset make it morally unacceptable to read them as fictions.

A third view of the relation between writing and evil is that of Alejo Carpentier in his last novel, El arpa y la sombra (1979) (published in English as The Harp and the Shadow, 1990). In that work, the character of Christopher Columbus is presented as an allegory of the writer, and his obsessive quest to cross the Atlantic in search of new lands is compared to the writer's struggle to produce a text whose final outlines can barely be foreseen. Like Borges, Carpentier presents writing in The Harp and the Shadow as a kind of compulsion, akin to a demonic possession.

The writer is seen in The Harp and the Shadow as a Faustian figure, willing to risk his soul to produce a great work. But Carpentier, like Cortázar, posits the readers' complicity in the creation of his fictional works. The Harp and the Shadow abounds in allusions to the interlude El Retablo de las Maravillas (The retable of wonders), a metatheatrical text in which Miguel de Cervantes explores, as in the Quixote, the complicity of the spectator and the reader. The lesson of Cervantes's play, and of Carpentier's evocation of it, is that the writer's compulsion to write is no different, nor less powerful, than the readers' compulsion to give shape and meaning to literary texts. Writers and readers both share in the Faustian bargain.

Unlike Goethe with regard to Faust, however, Carpentier sees almost no possibility of redemption for either writers or readers. Their only hope—a very slim one at best—may lie in the impossibility of anyone rendering a "final judgment" on them. This is so because for Carpentier writing belongs definitely to "the kingdom of this world"; it is one material thing among the other things of the world, and as such, it does not lead towards transcendence of any kind, whether religious or philosophical. Furthermore, in this world, which is the only one we inhabit and know, everyone is either a writer or a reader, and thus everyone shares in writing's perpetually abject state.

Writing as abjection; writing as addiction; writing as an endlessly proliferating system; writing as an extension of violence and oppression—the list of graphophobic accusations in modern Spanish American literature is extensive, almost reaching the level of paranoia. Still unclear, however, is precisely how, despite all of these negative views, writing becomes "addictive." Where does writing's power to enthrall originate? From where does writing derive its enormous social and cultural authority? On a more specifically literary level, what compels writers to write fictions and readers to read them? These are, of course, vast questions, on which literally thousands of volumes have been written, but they are also pertinent to recent attempts by Spanish American writers to resolve the apparent impasse presented by the relation between writing and evil.

Undoubtedly, the most ambitious and daring of these attempts is Gabriel García Márquez's novel El amor en los tiempos del cólera (1985) (published in English as Love in the Time of Cholera, 1988). The central work in an "amorous trilogy" that also includes Crónica de una muerta anunciada (Chronicle of a death foretold, 1981) and Del amor y otros demonios (Of love and other demons, 1994), Love in the Time of Cholera investigates the possibility of somehow purging writing of its violent and abject elements by means—corny as this may sound—of the redeeming power of love.

Love in the Time of Cholera tells the story of two lovers whose relationship, interrupted for over half a century, is mediated by writing. The title suggests a mixture of sublimity (love) and abjection (cholera) that is in itself evocative of the ambivalence of writing. It is also meant to evoke, along with certain passages in the novel, the medieval idea of lovesickness, the so-called amor hereos or "heroic love," which is prominent in works such as Rojas's Celestina. One supposed cure for lovesickness in the Middle Ages was logotheraphy, the use of language to divert the lovesick individuals from their obsessive preoccupations with their love objects (Solomon 59-64). The many allusions in Love in the Time of Cholera to the topic of lovesickness, as well as the novel's "open" ending, in which the aged lovers Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza realize that love is an endless emotional shuttling back and forth, make clear that one of this novel's principal aims is to invoke the curative, regenerative powers of literature—and, by extension, of writing. The powers of the written word are presented as similar, if not equal, to those of love.

Good writing exerts a seductive influence over readers; it makes readers fall in love with it. But reading, like falling in love, is not a state of rest, but a process; it means entering into a cycle of communication, of communion, of sharing. The healing power of reading is in many ways comparable to the psychoanalytic process known as transference, whereby the analyst and the person being psychoanalyzed share in a mutual process of reconstructing and reinterpreting the analysand's past. Moreover, this process for Freud, like love for García Márquez, was potentially interminable. The endlessness common to transference, love, and writing, rather than being a source of anxiety, is seen by García Márquez in a positive light as a form of vitality, a way of deferring death.

Just as significantly, the plot of Love in the Time of Cholera is framed by instants of privileged communication symbolized by the religious theme of the Pentecost. García Márquez's frequent and detailed allusions to Christianity in his novels are almost always symbolically associated with questions of writing, authorship, and authority: one example is the obvious evocations of Genesis and Exodus in Cien años de soledad (1967) (published in English as One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1970), and many critics have noted the symbolic allusions to the Gospels and to the Passion of Christ in El otoño del patriarca (The autumn of the patriarch) and Chronicle of a Death Foretold. While these allusions are mainly connected to the origins of the Christian religion and to Jesus as both a scapegoat and an authority figure, Love in the Time of Cholera evokes the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline epistles, that is, the moment of Christianity's worldwide dissemination through writing. Through the metaphor of the Pentecost, García Márquez's novel proposes that the curative powers of writing have become democratized, accessible to all. The "good news" about writing is that its potential to create visions of beauty and harmony is no longer limited to an intellectual or social elite. In this regard, García Márquez seems to be echoing Borges's comments in his essay "Sobre los clásicos": "I do not have an iconoclastic vocation. During the thirties, under the spell of Macedonio Fernández, I used to believe that beauty was the privilege of a few authors. Now I know that it is commonplace, and that it awaits us in the chance pages of a mediocre writer or in a conversation overheard in the street" (Obras completas 773). Like love, writing thrives with the freedom that makes it accessible to all.

Alas, Love in the Time of Cholera also points out repeatedly the peril, even the violence, that underlies love. Just as love can be a source of rejuvenation and vitality when it is freely and equally shared, it can become a source of pain, destruction, and death when it is in any way unequal, as the disturbing episode of Florentino's seduction of the child América Vicuña demonstrates (395-398, 485-486). Love can also be addictive, as Florentino's catalogue of 622 lovers over fifty years attests (226). Love in the Time of Cholera, along with the other two works of García Márquez's "amorous trilogy," ultimately recognizes what Plato had observed two millennia before in the Symposium: that love is a daimon, a demon, a mediator or "go-between," and that as such it is as unreliable and untrustworthy as that other go-between, writing (The Works of Plato 331-334).

Not coincidentally, perhaps, Love in the Time of Cholera also abounds in allusions to Dante. The most obvious of these are, of course, the name and some of the traits of Florentino Ariza. Florentino's adoration of Fermina in the first third of the novel is reminiscent of Dante's relationship with Beatrice in the Vita Nuova (1293). But Florentino and Fermina are also evocative of two characters from Dante's Divine Comedy: Paolo and Francesca. Florentino and Fermina are in many ways a positive rewriting of Dante's doomed lovers. In fact, García Márquez's text seems to allude to Paolo and Francesca in the tragic news story Fermina hears over the radio of two elderly lovers who had sustained an adulterous relationship for forty years, until the day they were murdered by a boatman in the very same place where they had had their first love encounter (460-461). Unlike these elderly lovers, or Paolo and Francesca, Florentino and Fermina live to old age and manage to freely fulfill their love after the death of Fermina's husband, Juvenal Urbino.

However, Florentino and Fermina resemble Paolo and Francesca in two important respects: they are brought together by writing and reading (in this case, Florentino's letters), and like Dante's characters, they seem to be suspended in a sort of eternal restlessness. But Florentino and Fermina are not carried along, like Paolo and Francesca, by an otherworldly "hellish tempest, which is never stilled" (Inferno V, 31); instead, their "goddamned coming and going" takes place in this world, in a ship under their command, paradoxically named the New Fidelity (El amor en los tiempos del cólera 503). The lesson of this fable about love and writing by García Márquez may well be that writing can not be redeemed by love, because love itself is like writing: a form of mediation that can be foolishly abused or wisely used and can work for evil or for good.

The action in Love in the Time of Cholera takes place during the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first three decades of the twentieth. Not coincidentally, perhaps, it was during this same period that the Spanish American modernists began their inquiry into the ethical dimension of writing. As will be seen in the following chapters, the ethical questioning of writing by the modernists and by subsequent writers first appears in the context of what might be termed "the theory and practice of abuse." I refer here to "abuse" in all of its various but interrelated meanings: as a verb, "to attack in words; to put to a wrong or improper use; to use so as to injure or damage," and as a noun, "a corrupt practice or custom; improper use or treatment; abusive language" (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, 8th ed., s.v. "abuse"). In such varied Spanish American texts as the short story "La hija del aire" (The daughter of the air, 1883) by Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera and the novels La charca (Stagnant waters, 1894) by Manuel Zeno Gandía and Ifigenia (Iphigenia, 1924) by Teresa de la Parra, we find some of the earliest descriptions of what might be called "scriptural abuse," of which these texts also serve as examples themselves. By means of female characters such as the "daughter of the air," Silvina, and María Eugenia, who are often thinly veiled personifications of writing, these narratives explore how writing can be alternately a victim and a perpetrator of abuse and oppression. Furthermore, as their recurrent use of the motifs of alienation and captivity also suggests, these works carry out their inquiry mostly without logocentric illusions, without the hope that orality might provide an escape from the paradoxes and violence of writing, the type of hope that Derrida denounces in Rousseau and in Claude Lévi-Strauss (Of Grammatology 101-140). The texts by Nájera, Zeno, and de la Parra examined in the following chapters also display a mixture of guilt and resignation towards writing: guilt about the violence of their scriptural origins and resignation to the seeming inevitability of that violence.


Aníbal González is the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Spanish at Pennsylvania State University.

"Aníbal González's book is a rich, exquisitely erudite, highly original, brilliantly argued essay about profound ethical issues in the history of writing literature in Spanish America.... It is the work of a consummate and recognized critic at the height of his powers."
—César A. Salgado, Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese, University of Texas at Austin