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Love and Politics in the Contemporary Spanish American Novel

Love and Politics in the Contemporary Spanish American Novel

The first book-length study of Spanish American literature's new sentimental novel, from Isabel Allende to Gabriel García Márquez.

January 2010
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189 pages | 6 x 9 |

The Latin American Literary Boom was marked by complex novels steeped in magical realism and questions of nationalism, often with themes of surreal violence. In recent years, however, those revolutionary projects of the sixties and seventies have given way to quite a different narrative vision and ideology. Dubbed the new sentimentalism, this trend is now keenly elucidated in Love and Politics in the Contemporary Spanish American Novel.

Offering a rich account of the rise of this new mode, as well as its political and cultural implications, Aníbal González delivers a close reading of novels by Miguel Barnet, Elena Poniatowska, Isabel Allende, Alfredo Bryce Echenique, Gabriel García Márquez, Antonio Skármeta, Luis Rafael Sánchez, and others. González proposes that new sentimental novels are inspired principally by a desire to heal the division, rancor, and fear produced by decades of social and political upheaval. Valuing pop culture above the avant-garde, such works also tend to celebrate agape—the love of one's neighbor—while denouncing the negative effects of passion (eros). Illuminating these and other aspects of post-Boom prose, Love and Politics in the Contemporary Spanish American Novel takes a fresh look at contemporary works.

  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. From Testimonial Narrative to the New Sentimental Novel: Barnet and Poniatowska
  • Chapter 1. Patriotic Passion: Isabel Allende's Of Love and Shadows
  • Chapter 2. Love or Friendship?: Tarzan's Tonsillitis by Alfredo Bryce Echenique
  • Chapter 3. Journey Back to the Source of Love: García Márquez's Of Love and Other Demons
  • Chapter 4. Recipes for Romance: Laura Esquivel, Luis Sepúlveda, and Marcela Serrano
  • Chapter 5. The Importance of Being Sentimental: Antonio Skármeta's Love-Fifteen and Luis Rafael Sánchez's La importancia de llamarse Daniel Santos
  • Appendix
  • Notes
  • Bibliography of Works Cited

Aníbal González is Professor of Modern Latin American Literature at Yale University and is the author of five books of criticism. He also serves on the editorial boards of numerous scholarly journals, including Latin American Literary Review. He lives in Hamden, Connecticut.



In the first pages of Miguel Barnet's Biografía de un cimarrón (Biography of a Runaway Slave, 1966), Esteban Montejo, the protagonist, narrator, and co-author, recalls how he never met his parents because he had been separated from them after his birth, and when he had the chance he was already a runaway and would not risk his precarious freedom in the mountains to go see them. "Because I was a runaway, I never knew my parents. I never even saw them," he states, and adds immediately: "But that's not sad because it's the truth" (15). Similar thoughts are voiced less concisely by the female protagonists of two of the most influential Latin American testimonial narratives of the late twentieth century: the feisty Jesusa Palancares in Elena Poniatowska's Hasta no verte, Jesús mío (Here's to You, Jesusa, 1969) and the long-suffering Rigoberta Menchú, co-author with Elizabeth Burgos of Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia (I, Rigoberta Menchú, 1985). Jesusa, with her prickly personality, keeps her readers at arm's length: "Now stop fucking. Go away. Let me sleep" (316). Rigoberta, for her part, transforms her personal suffering into a reason for joining the revolutionary struggle:

Well, there I was between these two things—choosing him or my people's struggle. And that's what I chose, and I left my compañero with much sadness and a heavy heart. But I told myself that I had a lot to do for my people and I didn't need a pretty house while they lived in horrific conditions like those I was born and grew up in. . . . My life does not belong to me. I've decided to offer it to a cause. . . . So the only road open to me is our struggle, the just war. The Bible taught me that. (226, 246)

Forged in the midst of the Latin American political and social controversies of the sixties and seventies as a supposed vindication of individual and subjective experience, testimonial narratives had neither time nor inclination to lament personal sorrows nor to concern themselves with love. In this, however, the testimonial genre differed little from the narrative mode it implicitly criticized and for which it aspired to substitute, the Boom narratives of the 1960s. The Boom novels, with their formal and linguistic experiments, their intellectualism, and their impersonal tendencies, could seemingly not be farther from the testimonial narrative's emphasis on simplicity, populism, and individual experience. However, both modes shared one key trait: a strong rejection of sentimental or amorous themes.

The Boom clearly sidelined the exploration and portrayal of human feelings in favor of a vast novelistic project some critics have characterized as the creation of a totalizing metaphor of Spanish America. Written with an ironic perspective derived from Borges and with a broad scope that aimed to encompass—however symbolically, as in Borges's "The Aleph"—the variegated totality of Spanish American life, novels such as Carlos Fuentes's La muerte de Artemio Cruz (The Death of Artemio Cruz, 1962), Julio Cortázar's Rayuela (Hopscotch, 1963), Mario Vargas Lllosa's La ciudad y los perros (The Time of the Hero, 1963), Gabriel García Márquez's Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967), and Guillermo Cabrera Infante's Tres tristes tigres (Three Trapped Tigers, 1967), among many others, nevertheless consigned sentimentalism to "the outskirts of literature" (to borrow a phrase from Borges himself).

Sentimentalism seemingly had no place in novels whose primary aims were to transplant the traits of avant-garde narrative into the Spanish American milieu and to confront the enigmas and perplexities of the continent's cultural identity. The burning regrets of Artemio Cruz, the nostalgias and neuroses of Horacio Oliveira, the melancholy death of Rocamadour, the insecurities and conflicts of the cadets in the Leoncio Prado Academy, the solitude of the Buendías, and the amorous mishaps of the Havana "tigers" are sentimental elements that appear in these novels subordinated to greater sociocultural and aesthetic concerns, as well as to an obvious machismo, such as that unconsciously displayed by Julio Cortázar in his notorious distinction (which he would later disavow) between "macho readers" and "female readers" (Rayuela, 452-454).

However, there soon arose in the late sixties and throughout the seventies a new group of younger writers who have come to be known as the "Post-Boom." The difference between the two groups is not exclusively chronological; it is also evidenced in their interests, themes, and techniques. This group includes writers as diverse as the late Reynaldo Arenas, Manuel Puig, and Severo Sarduy, as well as Isabel Allende, Miguel Barnet, Alfredo Bryce Echenique, Elena Poniatowska, Luis Rafael Sánchez, and Antonio Skármeta, among others. All of these authors have tended to reject the massive narratives of the "total novel" and have instead engaged in a critique of the ideological principles of that modality from various perspectives, ranging from the extreme avant-garde (in the works of Arenas, Sarduy, and more recently, Diamela Eltit) to that of more conventional narrative forms such as the testimonial novel, the new historical novel, detective fiction, and what I would call the new sentimental novel.

Amongst this somewhat confusing variety of narrative approaches, the two most influential and long-lasting, in my view, have been the testimonial and the sentimental narratives. Testimonial narrative predominated from the late sixties through the early eighties, driven by the revolutionary fervor and the political struggles taking place in Spanish America, including events such as the right-wing coup against Salvador Allende in Chile, Argentina's "dirty war," the civil war in El Salvador, and the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. Nevertheless, today the testimonial genre has entered a decline. As George M. Gugelberger points out, testimonial narrative "clearly seems to have lost the energy to significantly alter institutional discourses. The critical discourse focused on testimonio is moving on to other topics. The icon has been unmasked as another fetish" (17).

In my view, the critical "unmasking" of testimonio is a result (and not the cause) of the gradual loss of importance suffered by the testimonial genre by the end of the 1980s. By then, testimonial narrative began to be displaced by a wide range of sentimental and amorous narratives whose popularity grew as Spanish America was undergoing processes of political "redemocratization" and economic "globalization" encouraged by the neoliberal policies then in vogue. With the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the loss of interest in the revolutionary option, there arose in Spanish America a concern with healing and rebuilding of not only conflict-ravaged political and economic systems but also entire communities as well as individual souls.

Following the lead of precursor texts such as Canción de Rachel (Rachel's Song, 1969) by Miguel Barnet, the list of new sentimental narratives grew longer toward the last two decades of the twentieth century, encompassing novels such as El beso de la mujer araña (Kiss of the Spider Woman, 1976) by Manuel Puig, Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela (Dear Diego, 1978) by Elena Poniatowska, Tantas veces Pedro (So Many Times Pedro, 1978) and La vida exagerada de Martín Romaña (The Exaggerated Life of Martín Romaña, 1985) by Alfredo Bryce Echenique, Las batallas en el desierto (Battles in the Desert, 1981) by José Emilio Pacheco, De amor y de sombra (Of Love and Shadows, 1984) by Isabel Allende, Maldito amor (Sweet Diamond Dust, 1986) by Rosario Ferré, Arráncame la vida (Mexican Bolero, 1988) by Angeles Mastretta, La importancia de llamarse Daniel Santos (The Importance of Being Named Daniel Santos, 1988) by Luis Rafael Sánchez, Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate, 1989) by Laura Esquivel, Love-Fifteen (1989) by Antonio Skármeta, Amor propio (Self-Love, 1991) by Gonzalo Celorio, and Nosotras que nos queremos tanto (We Who Love Each Other So Much, 1997) by Marcela Serrano, among many others. In turn, the strong attraction of this new narrative mode soon made itself felt in works by several of the Boom's "masters," such as Mario Vargas Llosa's La tía Julia y el escribidor (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, 1977), the late Guillermo Cabrera Infante's La Habana para un infante difunto (Infante's Inferno, 1979), Carlos Fuentes's Diana, o la cazadora solitaria (Diana, the Goddess Who Hunts Alone, 1994), and the so-called "amorous triptych" of novels by Gabriel García Márquez: Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold, 1981), El amor en los tiempos del cólera (Love in the Time of Cholera, 1985), and Del amor y otros demonios (Of Love and Other Demons, 1994).

It should be pointed out immediately that this "return to love" is not an exclusively Spanish American phenomenon. A similar tendency has occurred in other Western countries. For instance, in France during the 1970s and 1980s a wide variety of writers and theorists published works that proclaimed and often exemplified a return to the sentimental language of lovers: A Lover's Discourse (1977) by Roland Barthes, The Post Card (1980) by Jacques Derrida, Elemental Passions (1982) by Luce Irigaray, Tales of Love (1983) by Julia Kristeva, and The Wisdom of Love (1984) by Alain Finkielraut, among others.

The newly democratic Spain of the post-Franco years also experienced an increase in narrative works that exalted subjectivity and sentimentalism above the simplifications of political ideologies. In his essay "Narrativa española y posmodernidad," José María Pozuelo Yvancos remarks on the "predominance of privacy" in postmodern Peninsular narrative, while María Mar Langa Pizarro notes in another study "the reappearance of an amorous thematics in a Neo-Romantic style" in the works of authors such as Jesús Ferrero, Eduardo Mendoza, Inma Monsó, and Javier García Sánchez (87). To Langa Pizarro's list one should add two other important names: Javier Marías, with works such as The Man of Feeling (1986), Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (1995), and his 1979 translation into Spanish of Sterne's Tristram Shandy; and Rosa Montero, with Crónica del desamor (Chronicle of Love Lost, 1979), Amado amo (Beloved Master, 1988), and Pasiones (Passions, 1999).

In the United States, critic Wendy Steiner has observed "a shift in taste toward a kind of fiction that was pioneered by contemporary women writers" and has remarked that "if the post-modern period opened with metafictional fireworks, it closes with the extraordinary commonplace of love" (19). Among the many examples that could be cited are recent works by two important authors linked to the political left and the artistic avant-garde in this country: the Neo-Romantic novel The Volcano Lovers (1999) by the late Susan Sontag and the book of essays by bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions (2000).

Undoubtedly, the turn toward love in the Post-Boom novelists has been motivated by a variety of factors. To the sociopolitical ones I have mentioned there may also be added the rapid growth in the Spanish American reading public and the desire of both authors and publishers to produce more accessible and readable works. Significantly, the Post-Boom gave prominence, perhaps for the first time in Spanish American literary history, to female novelists, from the Chileans Allende and Serrano to the Mexicans Poniatowska and Mastretta, among others. Exploring as well as criticizing the tendency to link sentimentalism with the feminine, these writers, along with their male colleagues, from Barnet and Bryce Echenique to Skármeta, have centered a great many of their works on the mysteries of love and passion.

Another factor more linked to aesthetic considerations may be the one given by Barthes as a rationale for his own turn toward sentimentalism in A Lover's Discourse: the wish to carry out a "transgression of transgression." Barthes points out how the modern literary tradition after the Avant-Gardes "transgressed" or violated the codes of Romanticism and post-Romanticism by exalting eroticism over love, psychoanalysis over the study of passion, and in general favoring objectivity and impersonality over subjectivity (Fragmentos 191-195). "Historical inversion:" Barthes states, "it is no longer sexuality that is indecent; it is sentimentality, censored in the name of what is ultimately nothing but another morality" (Fragmentos 193; Barthes's emphasis). Love and sentimentality had become embarrassing, almost obscene notions for the modern tradition. The return to them would thus be a new sort of violation of the dominant aesthetic codes. This is certainly what the Post-Boom narratives do with regard to their precursors in the Boom and the testimonial narrative.

Barthes's example serves additionally as a reminder that this return to sentimentalism is not limited to heterosexual desire, but is also strongly indebted to a neoplatonic tradition that encompasses homosexual love. Although heterosexuality seems to prevail among the characters and situations of the new Spanish American sentimental novels, homosexuality is by no means rejected as a legitimate form of love. Consonant with these novels' frequent critique of machismo, all varieties of love are treated with respect.

To the social, market, and aesthetic motives for the turn to sentimentalism yet another one may be added, of a philosophical nature: It is the ethical questioning of the relation between writing and violence. As I have argued elsewhere, there is in Western literature a pervasive tendency toward what I have called "graphophobia," that is, the fear and distrust of the written word (Killer Books 2-24 and ff.). This attitude arises, in my view, from an ancient linkage between writing and violence. The age-old association of writing with power, with control, and with the idea of the figurative "cutting" or mutilation of the body has led many writers to reflect on the apparent complicity between writing and evil. In turn, the historical circumstances of the arrival of alphabetical writing to the Americas in the midst of the violent conquest and colonization of the New World have made the bond between writing and violence somewhat more visible in Spanish America than in other places. Throughout twentieth-century Spanish American literature, in authors as varied as Jorge Luis Borges, Alejo Carpentier, Julio Cortázar, and Gabriel García Márquez, one may observe a tendency to reflect ever more urgently, and in a more radical way, about graphophobia and its effects. Such reflections have led in turn to attempts to "redeem" literature from its associations with violence. The turn toward love and sentimental themes may well be seen as the most daring and far-reaching of these attempts, for one of the aims of the new sentimental fiction is precisely to explore the "other face" of writing—its benevolent, seductive, and vital face—which leads authors to write, in García Márquez's words, "for the sheer pleasure of telling a story, which is perhaps the human state that most resembles levitation" (Doce cuentos peregrinos 18-19).

Ironically, two of the texts that signal most tellingly the beginning of the new sentimental narrative in Spanish America—Miguel Barnet's Rachel's Song and Elena Poniatowska's Dear Diego—were written by two authors who are also credited with giving rise to the contemporary Spanish American testimonial narrative. However, before discussing the origins of the new sentimental novel in these two works, it is necessary to explain what I mean by "sentimental" and to reflect at some length about the link between love and writing presupposed by this new narrative.


To understand the nature of literary sentimentalism one must turn to literary history, and in particular to the vogue for sentimentalism that occurred in late-eighteenth-century European narrative. It is true that love and the affects have been associated with lyric poetry since antiquity, and that in Hispanic narrative prose of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries there exist so-called "sentimental novels" that may be considered precursors of eighteenth-century sentimentalism: among others, Cárcel de amor (Love's Prison, 1492) by Diego de San Pedro, Grisel y Mirabella (1495) by Juan de Flores, and Celestina (1499) by Fernando de Rojas. Nevertheless, the ideological background of these works is quite different from that of the eighteenth-century works that bear the same name, and their resemblance is mostly due to their shared use of the themes and the rhetoric of courtly love. In fact, the adjective "sentimental" only begins to be used in its modern sense during the mid-eighteenth century, in connection with an aesthetic modality that had its first great flowering in Europe during that century and that in the field of the novel gave rise to works such as Pamela (1741) by Richardson, Tristram Shandy (1767) and A Sentimental Voyage through France and Italy (1768) by Sterne, La nouvelle Heloïse (1761) by Rousseau, The Man of Feeling (1771) by Mackenzie, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) by Goethe, and Les liaisons dangereuses (1782) by Laclos, among many others.

The aesthetics of eighteenth-century sentimentalism are largely based on the moral philosophy of British thinkers as diverse as Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, the Earl of Shaftesbury, and David Hume. For Hobbes in his Leviathan (1651) and Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776), humanity is irremediably fallen and sinful, and self-centeredness and the desire for power are the principal forces that move people in their daily affairs. Conversely, Shaftesbury and Hume believe that human beings have an inner moral sense by means of which they organize their perceptions of the outside world. It is this moral sense which produces a natural tendency toward benevolence, philanthropy, and social harmony. Eighteenth-century sentimental narrative dramatizes the clash between these two visions of humanity by means of the struggle of its benevolent, virtuous, and sensible protagonists in the mold of Shaftesbury and Hume with a self-centered, scheming, and utilitarian society like that seen by Hobbes and Smith.

Notions such as that of Freud's unconscious are, of course, alien to eighteenth-century sentimental fiction. In its characters' psyche nothing is hidden, and that which is not expressed does not exist. Thus, not only do sentimental protagonists openly express their emotions, but they do so in an exemplary way, as models of virtue and goodness. They often suffer the blows of an indifferent or hostile society, and their suffering is displayed as a lesson in humane sensibility and a moral imperative to be compassionate. The typical sentimental protagonist—whether male or female—is most often represented as a fragile, friendly, and trusting individual. Their story is usually set in a context of family and affective relations that are characterized by their instability. Although they may be wayward and lonely individuals, sentimental protagonists are not antisocial beings. To the contrary, they are always in search of love and compassion. They therefore place the highest possible value on whatever few ties of affection they have been able to establish, be they of kinship, love, or friendship. In economic matters, whether by aristocratic scruples or by ideological conviction, sentimental protagonists are anticapitalists. When they have money, they give it away to their friends or spend it on humanitarian works; when they do not, they retire to live in the country, to cultivate their garden like Voltaire's Candide. Needless to say, although eighteenth-century sentimentalism requires bodily expression by means of tears, trembling, laughter, and so on, sexual passion is usually avoided as it generates emotions that are too wrenching—such as jealousy—that can act against the feelings of sympathy and benevolence.

The language of eighteenth-century sensibility seeks to avoid irony at all costs, since it aims to provoke in the reader the same emotions it portrays. This explains its tendency to describe in minute detail the characters' feelings and the gestures that accompany them. This tendency often creates an extreme and involuntarily humorous disparity between bodily gestures, which are usually instantaneous and fleeting, and the torrent of words with which the narrator attempts to describe them. Exclamation signs, parentheses, textual lacunae, and typographical aberrations of various sorts are among the many resources used by sentimental authors in their attempt to supplement the insufficiency of writing to convey feelings: recall, for example, Tristram Shandy's use of black and marbled pages (33-34, 183-184).

In general, the trope of anacoluthon predominates in the rhetoric of sentimental fiction. Richard Lanham defines it: "Ending a sentence with a different grammatical structure from that with which it began. Both a vice and a device to demonstrate emotion and, Dupriez reminds us, an affair of conversation rather than written utterance" (10). Anacoluthon, says Barthes in his essay on Chateaubriand, "is simultaneously a rupture in sentence structure and the starting point of a new meaning. It is to begin anew when one has not yet finished" ("Chateaubriand" 158). By means of this trope the narrator flirts with incoherence and brings in digression and narrative perspectivism with the aim of drawing the reader into the complexities of the sentimental situation. A good twentieth-century example, as well as a fine description of the trope, is evidenced in the meditations of Pedro Balbuena, the protagonist of Bryce Echenique's second novel, Tantas veces Pedro:

When feelings remain, the story never ends. Whatever the outcome may be, the story never ends. . . . My stories, Sophie, my own stories seem to be always giving me new energy and they even begin again and they end again, it all depends to whom you're telling them or who asks you to tell them, or the state you're in when you start telling them to yourself again. (66)

The use of anacoluthon in the sentimental novel's discourse leads us to one of the fundamental ideological problems of this type of fiction, which was first explicitly manifested in the eighteenth-century sentimental narratives. Michael Bell defines the problem thus in Sentimentalism, Ethics, and the Culture of Feeling (2000): "The circular logic of eighteenth-century sentiment is that, even as it used fictional means, it constantly sought to deny the category of the fictional" (28-29). Sentimental novels were fictions, and they were received as such by their readers; nevertheless, an important part of their attractiveness lay in the belief that these novels produced real feelings in their readers, or at least placed them in contact with a true emotional experience. As Bell points out, in the English tradition of the sentimental novel there was a strong tendency to insist on the "truth" of the feelings that were fictionally represented in novels and to reflect on how those feelings could be converted, in the reader's mind, into a posture of moral sympathy or emotional identification (43-49).

Nevertheless, the eighteenth-century debates about the importance of feelings in public life, about the difference between sentimentalism and sentiment, and about sentimental fiction's effectiveness in provoking benevolent actions by its readers, took a new turn during the mid-nineteenth century, when authors such as Charles Dickens began to deal with the ontology of feelings in a new way. As Bell observes:

Rather than being entangled in literalistic views of moral psychology, as was the case with the initial understanding of sentiment, nineteenth-century writers could see its forms and rhetoric not just as an outdated but as a largely literary fashion, or more precisely as a set of emotional tropes ambiguously placed between psychological mechanisms and literary conventions. Hence, without necessarily resolving the intrinsic antinomies of moral sentimentalism, they could see it with a different kind of detachment and turn its now familiar tropes into an analytic means of insight into the elusiveness of moral feeling. Above all, Dickens' quite overt sense of fiction, and his play of humour, highlight the unwittingly fictive and rhetorical nature of sentiment itself. (127)

In their return to the sentimental tradition, today's Spanish American narrators display an attitude very similar to Dickens's as Bell describes it: Bryce and Skármeta, for example, who write humorous and self-conscious fiction, recognize that sentimentalism is a rhetorical mode and that it is, therefore, fictional, but they also regard it as the best way to analyze affective life. Moreover, these and other writers also find in the sentimentalism of popular culture and the mass media a widely shared code that makes it easier to communicate with their readers.

It is clear, however, that although sentimental fiction usually centers on love, not all sentimental narratives deal with amorous feelings in the same way. At least since the mid-nineteenth century, there have been narratives that deal with love in an ironic fashion. These narratives—from Stendhal's The Red and the Black (1829) to Flaubert's A Sentimental Education (in its 1869 version)—seek to avoid the codified sentimental gestures I have just described, although the analysis of passionate feelings continues to be their primary concern. The new sentimental narrative in Spanish America, as will be seen throughout this book, wavers between these two extremes: an eighteenth-century-style sentimentalism motivated by "philanthropic" impulses (to use an eighteenth-century term) and an ironic though no less subjective view of the effects of amorous passion.

Barthes's observations about the rhetoric of sentimentalism lead also toward more general questions about the relationship between love and language (whether spoken or written) in the discourse of sentimental narrative. We are so used to thinking about love as one of the archthemes of literature, almost as an end in itself, that it is difficult to conceive that amorous topics could be vehicles for other, no less fundamental concerns of literary writing. Nevertheless, this is indeed what happens in a good number of works from the modern and postmodern literary tradition. As one example among many, one might recall the use of love as a symbol for the union between Spirit and Nature in Romantic philosophy and poetry, as studied by M. H. Abrams in Natural Supernaturalism (1971). Looking back at the classical tradition, the dialogues of Plato, particularly Phaedrus and the Symposium, insistently connect discussion about the essence of love with language and writing. In the modern and postmodern periods there is an increasingly intense return to this pairing of love and communication.

For argument's sake, I would like to make a rather sweeping statement: All amorous writing presupposes that love and language (including written language) are fundamentally linked, and that both depend on one another in order to exist. In fact, the link between love and systems of representation has become a commonplace notion in works dealing with love in a variety of disciplines. In the social sciences, for example, sociologist Niklas Luhmann's book Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy (1986) studies love as "a generalized symbolic medium of communication" (18), while anthropologist William Jankowiak, in his introduction to the anthology Romantic Passion: A Universal Experience? (1995), states: "In general, the existence of romantic love can be recognized in the perceived specialness of another individual. It is based on the intense feelings for another, feelings of immense and complex psychological depth that need to be cultivated and renewed. It is an intimacy most readily observed . . . in shared stories, adventures, thoughts, and time spent together" (5).

From a psychoanalytical perspective, Julia Kristeva observes in Tales of Love that "love has become the privileged literary space of the passion of signs constituted by their literary condensation and polyvalence" (18), and Judith Butler, in her essay "Desire," points out that "desire is always to some degree displaced in (and by) language" (370). In the realm of philosophy, José Ortega y Gasset in his Sobre el amor (On Love, 1939) discusses extensively Stendhal's essentially semiotic and literary theory of love as a "crystallization" (278-333).

In recent years, Octavio Paz's reflections on love, collected in essays such as "El más allá erótico" (The Erotic Beyond, 1961) and books such as La llama doble: amor y erotismo (The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism, 1993), have been widely disseminated in the Hispanic world. Paz, who regards eroticism as a system of signs, offers the most explicit version of his thesis in "El más allá erótico":

Imitation does not aim to simplify but to complicate erotic play, thus accentuating its nature as a form of representation. . . . Man imitates the complexity of animal sexuality and reproduces its amusing, terrible, or ferocious gestures because he wishes to return to the natural state. At the same time, that imitation is a game, a form of theater. . . . Man wants to go out of himself—to be always outside his self. Man wants to be a lion, an eagle, an octopus, an ant, a mocking bird. We miss the creative import of such imitation if we do not realize that it is a metaphor: man wants to be a lion without ceasing to be man. That is to say: he wants to be a man but he behaves like a lion. The word like—an image by comparison—implies both the distance between the two terms, man and lion, as well as the will to abolish them. The word like is the erotic game itself, the cypher of eroticism. (185-186; Paz's italics)

In many of the recent Spanish American sentimental novels, the link between love and writing is often clearly mediated by eroticism conceived as a code, as a system of signs and signals. Love arises in these narrations from communication by means of erotic signs that may at first be nonverbal but that move quickly to the sphere of spoken or written language. Writing in many of these contemporary sentimental novels appears not as a simple palliative for the absence of the loved one, but as an activity that shares in the visual, sensorial nature of eroticism: it is another form of erotic gesturing.

My understanding of writing coincides in general with that proposed by the late Jacques Derrida in works such as Of Grammatology (1967) and Dissemination (1972), which views the act of writing as a differential activity in time as well as space. To elaborate further at this point seems superfluous, since this is already such a familiar notion. Instead, I believe it is more important to explain the view of love that serves as my point of departure for this book. This view focuses less on the ontology of love (a question that is still, and will probably continue to be, debated and debatable) than on a typology of amorous experience which has led to the formulation of two opposing concepts of love in the Western tradition. In developing these ideas, I have drawn inspiration from Denis de Rougemont's classic work L'amour et l'Occident (Love in the Western World, 1956), whose continued relevance has been shown by María Rosa Menocal in her book Shards of Love: Exile and the Origins of the Lyric (1994).

Based on a detailed commentary of the myth of Tristan and Isolde, De Rougemont holds that the modern idea of love derives from the notion of "courtly love" found in medieval Provençal lyric poetry. This, in turn, is nourished by obscure religious sources—among others, the Manichaean and Catharist sects—for whom love was a way to achieve transcendence by freeing the soul of its fleshly prison and imbuing it with the "infinite desire" to unite with the divinity (61-82). This "divinization" of love as eros by the troubadours tends to glorify passion, that is, the suffering produced by amorous desire, since it is through suffering that the soul is freed from the flesh in order to be united with the divine. This is a fundamentally egotistic conception of love, since the mystical union can only occur between the individual soul and God. The love object, the beloved, fulfills in eros only an instrumental function; it is simply a means to achieve union with the divinity. Obstacles to the lovers' amorous union play a paradoxical role in the economy of eros, since the greater these impediments are, the greater the suffering, and the greater also is the spiritual purification that is the ultimate goal of the lovers (50-55).

Nevertheless, for De Rougemont the notion of love as eros has always existed in a tense relationship with another concept of love, that of Christian agape. In this concept, through the incarnation of Christ the spirit descends into matter and becomes one with it, mixing the material with the spiritual, the human with the divine (67-69). Love as agape is opposed to the passion of eros, since its ultimate goal is achieving the communion of the faithful, the love of neighbors, instead of the individual soul's union with God. Bringing heaven down to earth, agape also discards the idea of suffering as a means of reaching transcendence, since it assumes that contact with the divinity is a gift that God freely gives to humanity. The model for agape is the institution of marriage, the link between two beings who love each other equally, without one being superior to the other (311-315).

If we consider eros and agape as metaphors of two kinds of writing, we see then that eros is associated with a notion of writing (and, by extension, of reading) as an arduous and oppressive activity that is linked to suffering and is afflicted by disjunction, distance, and violence. Writing and reading, in this view, are moved by the perpetually excited as well as perpetually impeded desire of achieving transcendence (whether of intellect or spirit, it matters little). Writing and reading would be in this sense profoundly passionate activities, with a passion moved by the promise that at the end transcendence will be reached as union with a collective or universal knowledge.

On the other hand, the idea of writing as agape emphasizes the communicative aspects of reading and writing and regards the text as a successful mediator and link between writers and readers. Agape does not see writing as problematical (or only to a lesser extent) and underscores instead those elements that simplify the search for the text's meaning: the evocation of orality, acceptance of the conventions of literary genre, personification, and verisimilitude, among many others. The text's meaning is easily—almost didactically—discovered. Reading and writing then become instances of the atemporal experience of "happy love" which, as De Rougemont points out, "has no history" (15), and is a joyful state of grace in which writers and readers share the experience as equals.

In an essay that paved the way for the revalorization of sentimentalism by today's literary criticism, "Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Politics of Literary History" (1978), Jane P. Tompkins, like Barthes in A Lover's Discourse, attacks the modernist or avant-garde notion of literature, for which "works whose stated purpose is to influence the course of history, and which therefore employ a language that is not only unique but common and accessible to everyone, do not qualify as works of art" (Tompkins 84; Tompkins's italics). Instead, Tompkins proposes that "the work of the sentimental writers is complex and significant in ways other than those which characterize the established masterpieces" (84). She further adds that, to understand the power these fictions had in their time, today's readers must "set aside some familiar categories for evaluating fiction—stylistic intricacy, psychological subtlety, epistemological complexity—and to see the sentimental novel, not as an artifice of eternity answerable to certain formal criteria and to certain psychological and philosophical concerns, but as a political enterprise, halfway between sermon and social theory, that both codifies and attempts to mold the values of its time" (84-85).

Tompkins's comments about a nineteenth-century U.S. text are, in my view, just as pertinent to the new sentimental narrative of Spanish America of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The contemporary Spanish American writers' interest in sentimentalism, rather than stemming from an egotism or self-centeredness that turns its back on the world, arises instead from the desire to keep making visible the connection between narrative fiction and its sociohistoric and cultural circumstances. In particular, the tension between eros and agape found in this new narrative may also be understood as a debate between two different concepts of writing's social function.

That debate is visible from the start in two of the main texts that I consider to be at the origins of the new Spanish American sentimental narrative: Rachel's Song and Dear Diego. As we shall see, Barnet and Poniatowska dismantle in their respective works the referentiality, the truth-claims, and the ethical Manichaeanism of testimonial narrative. They achieve this by intensifying still further the subjectivism and sentimentalism latent in testimonio (although often repressed, as we saw in Rigoberta Menchú's quote) and by further emphasizing the problems inherent in linguistic, literary, and artistic representation in general. It is not by chance that the protagonists of these two works are associated with written language (in Rachel's case, with a variety of theatrical and poetic texts, and in Quiela's with the letters she writes to Diego) as well as with visual forms of representation such as theater and painting. These works also openly explore Octavio Paz's view of eroticism as a system of signs, as a kind of proto-art, but, most importantly, they put to the test the transgressive capacity of sentimentalism, as Barthes conceives it, as well as Tompkins's notion of "sentimental power."


Miguel Barnet's Rachel's Song was published in 1969, shortly after the success of Biography of a Runaway Slave. By then, the process of bureaucratization and state control of Cuban literature begun by Fidel Castro in 1962 with the creation of the UNEAC (the Cuban National Writers' and Artists' Union) had reached its culmination. No less important is the fact that there had also taken place, from 1964 to 1966, a harsh repressive campaign against Cuban homosexuals. In the literary sphere, some of the most significant and experimental works of postrevolutionary Cuban literature had already been published, including Carpentier's El siglo de las luces (Explosion in a Cathedral, 1962), Lezama Lima's Paradiso (1966), Arenas's Celestino antes del alba (Celestino Before Dawn, 1967), Sarduy's De donde son los cantantes (Where the Singers Are From, 1967), and Cabrera Infante's Tres tristes tigres.

Biography of a Runaway Slave had been quickly exalted as the prototype of the "new" revolutionary literature, which showed a less nostalgic attitude toward the immediate prerevolutionary past than some of the previously mentioned works and aspired to rewrite Cuban history from a revolutionary perspective by offering "the history of people without history." Esteban Montejo, the centenarian runaway protagonist of Biography of a Runaway Slave, was seen as a sort of allegory or incarnation of the Cuban revolutionary spirit, a bridge linking Cuba's historical present with an underground tradition of rebelliousness. Some statements by Barnet made it seem as if this work would be the beginning of a series of testimonial novels in which Barnet would present, in Fernando Ortiz's phrase, "the human elements of Cubanness," that is, a gallery of "social types" representing the various strata of Cuban culture: the blacks, Spaniards, Chinese, and women.

However, in practice the projected series immediately changed course with the publication of Rachel's Song, a work that exceeds Barnet's original anthropological or ethnographic scheme. Rather than examining the life of a "typical" Cuban woman (if there were such a thing), the work centers on the life story of a chorus girl from a notorious vaudeville theater in Havana named El Alhambra. Moreover, as Andrew Bush points out, "while Rachel is white, her Hungarian mother and German father leave her a racial curiosity in Cuba, and . . . this European parentage and her Biblical name raise the possibility of a Jewish background" (162). Rachel's own work as a chorus girl and singer not only underscores her atypical nature, but also distances her from the testimonial genre's truth-claims, linking her instead to the dubious and labyrinthine milieu of the theater. If the identity of the narrator in Biography of a Runaway Slave is already problematical, in Rachel it turns into a Borgesian abyss of reflected images, symbolized in the text by the recurrent metaphor of the mirror (to which I will return later). Furthermore, as Barnet indicates in his prologue to the text, "Rachel" is not a "real," unique, existing individual as Esteban Montejo was, but is in fact a composite character based on interviews with various chorus girls who worked at the Alhambra (Rachel 9). The work also breaks with Runaway Slave's first-person monologue by incorporating other voices that often explicitly comment on or reply to her statements. In this sense, although compared to the Boom novels Rachel's Song is easier to read, compared to Runaway Slave it is a more formally complex text. Partly due to this greater formal complexity, most critics have regarded Rachel's Song as a more unequivocally "literary" text than Biography of a Runaway Slave.

However, the most profound break between Rachel's Song and the model of testimonial narrative embodied in Biography of a Runaway Slave lies precisely in the former's emphasis on sentiment. This emphasis can be seen not only in Rachel's overt reflections on this issue ("Caruso cried, and all of Cuba cried along with him—that's how sentimental my country is," 115) but in her own personality and in the often melodramatic circumstances she experiences. And this happens in spite of Barnet's attempts to distance his text ironically from the figure of Rachel by means of the critical comments voiced by other characters in the book that interrupt Rachel's monologues like the chorus in a Greek tragedy—among them, Esteban Montejo himself (58-59).

In my view, the turn to sentimentality in Rachel's Song arises from this novel's introduction—albeit discreetly—of a theme that will reappear time and again in all of the works of the new Spanish American sentimental narrative: the theme of postrevolutionary fatigue or disillusionment. It is a disillusionment that leads, in turn, to a return to intimacy, to subjectivity, to the exploration of love as an alternative means of social change, and even as a form of therapy for souls worn out by years of struggle and renunciation. Moreover, this return displays a nostalgia for idealized views of interpersonal relations and, more concretely, of the amorous experience. In a great many of the new sentimental novels—and, as will be seen, in Rachel's Song itself—such views are symbolized by means of the often stylized evocation of the themes and topics of courtly love and the tradition of medieval chivalry. The presence of medieval themes in a twentieth-century Spanish American novel should not be surprising; it is already commonplace to point out that the rich repertoire of terms and attitudes about love produced by the courtly love tradition has served as the main source for amorous discourse in the Western world.

The Cuba to which the elderly Rachel returns in her memories is largely that of the first decades of the Cuban Republic (approximately from 1902 to the 1920s), a period of Cuban history notorious for the direct intervention of the United States in the country's internal affairs and for the social and political corruption evidenced during the presidential regimes of José Miguel Gómez, Mario Menocal, and Alfredo Zayas, which gave rise in the end to the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado. To a great extent, that Cuba symbolized the defeat of the high ideals of moral purity embodied by the modernista poet and leader of Cuba's independence, José Martí. Martí often expressed these ideals in his poetry, speeches, and political writings by means of chivalric metaphors and phraseology, as can be seen in the following excerpt from his article "El tercer año del Partido Revolucionario Cubano: el alma de la revolución y el deber de Cuba en América" (The Cuban Revolutionary Party's Third Year: The Soul of the Revolution and Cuba's Duty in America), published in the newspaper Patria in 1894:

In the balance-beam of America lie the Antilles, which, if enslaved, would be merely a pontoon for an imperial republic's war against the jealous and superior world that is getting ready to deny it its power—a mere advance post of the American Rome . . . . The new life of the redeemed Antilles must not be composed lightly, but with a century-long awareness. We must assume such great human responsibility with august respect. We will either reach great heights because of our noble aims, or we will sink to great depths because we did not understand those aims. It is a world that we are trying to balance: it is not just two islands [Cuba and Puerto Rico] that we are trying to liberate . . . . An error in Cuba would be an error in America; an error in all of modern humanity. Whoever rises up today with Cuba rises for all time. She, our holy fatherland, imposes upon us the need to be singularly reflexive; to serve her, in this difficult and glorious hour, fills us with dignity and majesty. This extraordinary duty strengthens our heart, guides us like a fixed star, and will shine like a beacon from our graves. (Letras fieras 117-118)

"Let others love wrath and tyranny," said Martí in his "Oración de Tampa y Cayo Hueso" (Speech at Tampa and Key West). "Cubans are capable of love, which makes freedom everlasting" (Letras fieras 79).

Rachel's Cuba is, instead, a nation that has suffered the deep disillusionment of seeing a period of epic and bloody struggle end up becoming like farce similar to those performed by the bufos of the Alhambra Theater due to the U.S. intervention and political corruption. The moral vacuum produced by such a disillusionment is then filled up with the symbols and the rhetoric of the return to the self, to the culte du moi, and, in general, to an egotism with a markedly erotic slant. Rachel's discourse, as will be seen, mixes up the commonplaces of courtly love and medieval chivalry evoked in the oratory and the modernista poetry of José Martí with fleshly desires, frivolity, and lower-class tastes.

The meaning of this novel's title, Rachel's Song, becomes clearer and richer in this context. Rachel's "song" is undoubtedly the "swan song" of a whole epoch as well as the "siren song" of a demimondaine who remains fascinating and seductive despite all the ideologically driven attempts to censor her, but it is also the story of Rachel's life. This story is presented as a "song" or cantar about Rachel, in the sense in which the term appears in the medieval Song of Roland and the Cantar del Mío Cid, that is, as a degraded and vulgar version of the texts of epic chivalry, as well as of the texts of courtly love. In turn, the language adopted by this cantar is closest to that of a genre of popular music that originated during the same years when Rachel was beginning her career in vaudeville: the bolero. Defined by some as "a love song with rhythm," the bolero is the sentimental genre par excellence in Spanish American music, and it originated precisely in Cuba in 1885 with the song "Tristezas" (Sadness) by the composer from Santiago de Cuba José (Pepe) Sánchez. Curiously, the popularity of the bolero began to grow after Alberto Villalón, a disciple of Sánchez, presented the musical review "The Triumph of the Bolero" in 1906 in the same Alhambra Theater with which Rachel is associated. The bolero-like aspect of Rachel's text is certainly linked to the "vulgarity" she wishes to repress, but it is also one of the vehicles through which Rachel learns the metaphors and images of the courtly love tradition.

Considering that Rachel's Song was published in 1969, during the Cuban Revolution's tenth anniversary, following the Revolution's "epic phase," and when the Revolution had clearly become, at least for the intellectuals, a repressive phenomenon, it would not be too venturesome to suppose that this novel posits a parallelism between the sense of disillusionment of the first decades of the Cuban Republic and the wrenching experiences suffered by artists, intellectuals, and members of socially marginalized groups such as homosexuals during the first decade of the Revolution. Castro's Cuba at the end of the 1960s, which had grown ever more dependent on the Soviet Union, was, like the Cuban Republic of Estrada Palma (Cuba's first president) and his successors, a project that was doomed to failure, largely due to the abandonment of the fundamentally nationalist ideals of the 1959 Revolution. It is in this sense that Rachel's Song, despite being published early in the revolutionary period, when Cuba was still trying to "export" its revolution to the rest of the hemisphere, may be seen as one of the first Spanish American texts to manifest the sort of postrevolutionary fatigue and disappointment that would give rise to the new sentimental narrative.

How, then, is amorous and sentimental discourse expressed in Rachel's Song? To which of the two categories of sentimental writing I have posited—that of eros or that of agape—could this work be assigned? I believe that, like the other new sentimental novels of which it is the precursor, Rachel's Song displays a tense tug-of-war between the two opposing poles of sentimental writing. In this case, however, the tension leans to the side of eros. Indicative of this is the text's strong ironic tone. Irony is the predominant trope in Rachel's Song, because this work deals with sentiment in much the same ironic way as Stendhal and Flaubert. The discourse of Rachel's Song deals with sentiment with a disconcerting mixture of ironic distance and enthusiasm similar to Stendhal's De l'amour. I do not mean to say that Rachel produces in her monologue a rationalistic discourse on love, as the author of The Charterhouse of Parma attempts. Instead, even as she recounts the melodramatic and emotion-laden events of her life without shedding a tear, indeed, in a feisty and sometimes confrontational tone, Rachel the singer offers her readers a sort of master class in the use (and abuse) of sentimentalism. It is well to remember that Rachel made her living by provoking men's desire for her, promising them an impossible union. Like Diotima in Plato's Symposium, Rachel is a "woman who was deeply versed in this [Love] and many other fields of knowledge" (Plato 553). She is thus a master of eros, that is, of love as passion (as I have defined it following De Rougemont), and at the same time she is a master of the representation of passion: she is the keeper of the secrets of the "sentimental power" that writing can exert over its readers.

It would seem that rather than attempting to provoke a sympathetic reaction in the reader, as writing as agape does, Rachel's Song offers instead an ironic lesson about the erotic aspects of writing. Nevertheless, despite the text's ironic qualities and the almost narcissistic egotism of its protagonist, there are certain elements of this work that can be associated with writing as agape: in particular, Rachel's vitalistic attitude and her command of what one might call the rhetoric of passion. At this level, one could speak of a certain sympathy, a certain identification with Rachel, particularly between Rachel and her author, inasmuch as Rachel is a sort of prototype of the new transgression that sentimental narrative aims to achieve. The link with writing as agape is also reinforced by relatively "reader-friendly" qualities of this text (despite its fragmented appearance), including its allusions to political history, journalism, and popular culture.

In general terms, the story Rachel tells her readers about herself resembles at first that of the heroines in the eighteenth-century sentimental novels such as Pamela, although in the end it is more of a parody of these novels, since Rachel and her mother are both far from being epitomes of womanly virtue: although not prostitutes in the strict sense, they both lead sexually free lives and seek to benefit themselves from their relationships with wealthy men. In her unsuccessful attempt to cover up her dubious origins and her way of life, Rachel presents herself, like the sentimental heroines, as a fundamentally good and noble person who struggles to survive in a hostile world:

I'm a strong woman I'm not a whiner; I've said that, and I'll repeat it again. I'm a woman who always knows how to come out on top. Like the buoys at sea, that boys try to sink, and—bam!—up they come again. (84)

Unlike the eighteenth-century heroines, however, at the end of her story Rachel does not arrive at the safe havens of marriage and prosperity. In fact, this possibility is tragically foreclosed from the beginning, when, as a chorus girl at the Tívoli Theater, her boyfriend Eusebio, whose family had "shoe factories, sugar mills, and lots of other stuff" (19), commits suicide by slitting his throat "in front of a mirror" (23) due to his family's unyielding opposition to his marriage with Rachel. Previously, Eusebio's family had forced Rachel to abort her child by Eusebio: "My life went to pieces," states Rachel. "My name dragged through the mud, and likewise his prestige, even though he was noble and a rower at the Yacht Club. It was a Greek tragedy for both of us" (23). Recalling this event later in the novel, Rachel adds: "When Eusebio, my only pure love, died, I tried to kill myself, but everything turned out the wrong way and since then I haven't had the courage to do it. . . . After that incident, I decided to live until my days are over" (102).

Although her relationship with Eusebio was, according to Rachel, "the only pure passion in my life" (19), the rest of the chorus girl and singer's long life becomes a prolonged learning process about passion, an ironic "sentimental education" in the style of Flaubert. Never again will Rachel give in to passion herself; instead, she will provoke it in others. She will do this by means of the artifices of emotive representation, making use of a whole arsenal of codified erotic gestures that she learns partly by observation, but also with the help of her homosexual friend Adolfo (45-46, 64, 67-68, 84-85, 100), and which she practices in front of a mirror:

I bought a mirror in Dragones Street; a standing mirror with two very beautiful columns in the ancient Greek style. I placed it in front of my bed to watch myself at all hours. On my own, I studied all the gestures and expressions an artist needs to know. I tried to smile first and then to break out laughing. I cried like Mary Magdalene, smoked like an Apache; I let myself get carried away, wept, and then recited monologues I had heard from Becerra at Pous's bululús, which was a company of traveling performers. I repeated everything I had done at the Tívoli and at the circus. I made myself better on my own. (63-64)

The metaphor of the mirror has been linked since Classical antiquity to the notion of art as an imitation of reality and was revived by the aesthetics of novelistic realism in the nineteenth century, as in the much-cited epigraph to Chapter 13 of Stendhal's Le Rouge et le noir: "Novel: a mirror that travels along a road" (Stendhal 95). In Rachel's Song, however, the mirror signifies the opposite of realism. In the style of the Avant-Gardes, and of course, of Borges, the image of the mirror evokes ironic self-reflexiveness, infinite regression, illusion, artifice, and—as in the myth of Narcissus—death, as seen in Eusebio's suicide and in Rachel's request that, when she dies, someone should put "a mirror on my chest. A mirror to see my face" (Canción de Rachel 121).

Simultaneously practicing self-love and the codes of eroticism, Rachel adopts a view of existence that may be characterized as post-tragical. With this view she aims to immunize herself from sentimentalism, since she is, as she assures her readers, "a strong woman" (84). Her attempt to command the codes of sentimentalism goes from the virtual writing present in bodily gestures to written language itself in the theatrical scripts she memorizes, as well as in the texts that she herself writes. The latter, significantly, fulfill the mirror-like function of helping Rachel to train herself in the arts of sentimental rhetoric and to reinforce her self-love, her subjectivity:

Those days of anguish forced me, I don't know, told me: Pick up a paper and pencil and write. It's not that I want to be a writer or a poet. Heavens, no!, I was far from being that, but I picked up a folder of papers and began to write some pages that later became engraved in my mind from telling them to myself, just to myself, because I didn't recite a single verse even to Alfonso. (71-72)

Rachel embodies the scriptural eros I have posited based on De Rougemont's ideas. Linked to the world of representation, to writing, cultivating her selfhood even as she keeps her emotional distance from all other people, Rachel also suffers for the sake of transcendence, although at first sight her vitalistic and frivolous pose would seem to distance her from the liebestod (love-death) topic that is an integral part of the courtly love ethos (De Rougemont 46, 50-53). In fact, the novel offers a parodic version of the deaths of Tristan and Isolde and Romeo and Juliet in the episode in which Rachel, partly as a trick to make her husband Federico stop loving her, invites him to commit suicide along with her. To Rachel's surprise, her husband accepts this proposal, and she is unable to find a way out of her own scheme. As a way of saying goodbye to the world, they both decide to attend one last party, a masked ball at the Tacón Theater. There, a daring masked man pinches Rachel's buttocks, Federico comes to her defense, and a hubbub ensues in which all three end up in the police station, putting an end to the projected suicide. "That fond wish, that dream of mine, could not be carried out," says Rachel, "It was stopped by a vulgarity" (112-113).

Rachel's vitalism, however, reveals her links to that same "vulgarity" she claims to despise. A chorus girl and burlesque theater performer, Rachel's profession is irredeemably vulgar to the rest of society. It is not surprising, then, that she should yearn for "another life" that is more sublime and transcendent. In this sense, Rachel's comments on the subject of "flying saucers" and extraterrestrial beings toward the end of the novel are revealing:

Anyway, this earthly life isn't so good and isn't really worth it. I wish they'd come in droves to pick me up and take me in that saucer to another planet in the universe, Venus, Mars, wherever, so that I could have other experiences and improve myself, because the truth is that here there isn't anything anymore, people devour each other, they hate each other, there's no peace, nothing. Yesterday I heard an idiot, just yesterday, saying that there isn't any life on Mars. They're crazy because they want to know things without reading them in books, without research. I know that over there they live like we do here, but with one eye on their brow and without eating or reading. They don't have any trouble. Everything is happiness, lots of parties, lack of worries, going on strolls. I would give all I have to live there, even though they say there isn't any vegetation and I love plants. . . . One has to dream. Because if this life is all there is, if everything ends here, it's a big shit. I for one don't feel satisfied. I want to keep on living on Mars, on Venus, wherever—wherever!—as long as I know that I won't be staying here to feed the worms. (117-118)

Reminiscent of Rimbaud's famous dictum in Une saison en Enfer (1873): "True life is absent; we are not in the world" (Oeuvres complètes 229), Rachel's vitalism in these passages can be clearly seen as an expression of the same desire for purification and transcendence found in the notion of love as eros. Rachel's Manichaean view of life is evident throughout the text, in comments such as the following: "One of my character traits is that, although I'm good-natured, I'm also rancorous, I don't forget slights. A century or two might pass, but I won't forget those who wanted to get rid of me, just as I won't forget, of course, those who were good" (101). In his explanation of the roots of the concept of passionate love in the Manichaean religious doctrines, De Rougemont makes observations about the role of music and song in Manichaeanism that seem to resonate in Rachel's Song. It is worth quoting them in full:

It has recently been shown . . . that the structure of the Manichaean faith was "in essence lyrical." In other words, the nature of this faith made it unamenable to the rational, impersonal, and "objective" exposition. Actually, it could only come to be held in being experienced, and the experience of it was one of combined dread and enthusiasm—that is to say, an invasion by the divine—which is essentially poetic. The cosmogony and theogony of this faith became "true" for a believer only when certitude was induced by his recital of a psalm. So Tristan, it will be recalled, cannot state his secret, only sing it.

Every dualistic—let us say, every Manichaean—interpretation of the universe holds the fact of being alive in the body to the absolute woe, the woe embracing all other woes; and death it holds to be the ultimate good, whereby the sin of birth is redeemed and human souls return into the One of luminous indistinction. We may attain to Light while here below through a gradual ascent which is achieved in the progressive death of a deliberate askesis. But the goal and the end of the spirit is also the end of limited life, of physical life obscured by immediate multiplicity. Eros, object of our supreme Desire, intensifies all our desires only in order to offer them up in sacrifice. The fulfillment of Love is the denial of any particular terrestrial love, and its Bliss of any particular terrestrial bliss. (66)

Like the character of Tristan in Wagner's opera, to whom De Rougemont alludes in the above quote, Rachel "cannot state [her] secret, only sing it." Rachel's song, even as it parodies the epic, also has something enigmatic about it, perhaps derived from the trobar clus tradition of courtly love, as can be seen from the novel's first sentences:

This island is something big. Here the strangest and the most tragic things have occurred. And it will always be so. The land, like human beings, as its destiny. And Cuba's destiny is mysterious. I'm not a witch, nor a gypsy, nor a card-reader, nothing of the sort; I don't know how to read palms the right way, but I've always said to myself that whoever is born in this piece of land has his mission, for good or for ill. (Canción de Rachel 11)

In consonance with the belle-époque ambiance of this novel, perhaps one could call Rachel by the epithet the Colombian poet José Asunción Silva coined for the Russian painter Maria Bashkirtseff, whose passionate Diary (1884) was a popular book at the end of the nineteenth century: "Our Lady of Perpetual Desire." Rachel could also be seen as a degraded or parodic version of the "feminine Savior" of courtly love poetry (De Rougemont 90). A passage from Rachel's Song is highly suggestive in terms of the novel's links with the religious roots of the love-as-eros tradition: It is the story of Rachel's recurrent dream, in which a "child dressed in white" appears silently, and after wandering around the room and handing her some scraps of paper with musical notation, "he lifts up the hairs from my brow and gives me a kiss. It's not that the child is in love with me, because he's a kid and kids are not into that, but when he kisses me I feel happy. It is a pure kiss" (90). This passage, with its images of purity, luminosity, and childhood, which are evocative of the poems in José Martí's Ismaelillo (1881), also coincides with the way in which the Cathars (whose name meant "the pure ones") visualized the moment of death for the chosen ones who had renounced the world:

In the Kephalaia or Chapters of Manes, Chapter Ten tells how the elect person who has renounced the world receives the imposition of hands (among the Cathars the consolamentum, usually given at the approach of death); how he thus sees that he is 'ordained' in the Spirit of Light; how at the last, in the moment of death, the Form of Light, which is his spirit, appears to him and consoles him with a kiss; how his angel offers him its right hand and also greets him with the Kiss of Love; how finally the elect person venerates his own Form of Light, his feminine Savior. (De Rougemont 90; italics in the original)

Undoubtedly, Rachel's discourse weaves together the carnal and the sublime, but it is important to underscore that this always occurs in a rhetorical and theatrical context, as part of a spectacle or representation. Rachel never stops acting, never stops performing, because that is her "essence" and perhaps her "secret": her identity is always presented as a construct, and although postmodern theory holds this to be true of all identities, in the character of Rachel this process is laid bare for all to see.

Recognizing Rachel as a construct, an artifice, a kind of sign, leads us to ask what its meaning might be, what the text may be trying to convey by means of a personified entity with Rachel's traits. An emblematic or allegorical reading of Rachel is highly suggestive in this regard. In my view, the ambivalences in Rachel's personality and discourse (carnality versus spirituality, frivolity versus seriousness, and even femininity versus masculinity) may be explained if we view Rachel as an emblem of writing. The use and abuse of woman as an emblem of writing (and of art in general) is a notorious aspect of the Western tradition that has already been explored in detail by feminist criticism. Its recurrence in Barnet's text is consistent with the period (the early twentieth century) alluded to in Rachel's Song, when modernista aesthetics still held sway. For this aesthetics, the equation woman=writing was a given, and was manifested in topics such as that of the femme fatale. Of greater interest, however, is the type of writing Rachel stands for: the writing of eros, of passion. Rachel's "secret" lies precisely in the link between passion and writing. As I previously pointed out, the writing of eros is based on disjunction and distance along with a perpetually excited but always unsatisfied desire to reach transcendence. If we accept the notion that desire and writing are inseparably joined, Rachel's vitalism (which, as we have seen, is mostly the desire for another life) may also be emblematic of the potentially endless nature of writing, which is always condemned to be unable to join the object it designates, the object of its desire.

There is yet another side to this view of Rachel as an allegory of passionate writing, particularly if we recall those moments in the novel when Rachel transforms herself into a national allegory, into an emblem of Cuba. Such is the case when Rachel arrives in Santa Clara with the Circus "Las Maravillas de Austria" and she buys herself there a "Cuban costume" (un traje de cubana): "I dressed myself with the Cuban flag: the star on the middle of my chest and the blue stripes flowing down my arms. The typical national dress. We went out on parade, announcing: 'There goes the Cuban Woman!' (ahí va la cubana)" (60). Rachel blatantly assumes here—revealing its artifice in doing so—the very same role of national emblem performed by other well-known female characters in Cuban literature, from Cecilia Valdés in the homonymous novel by Cirilo Villaverde to Cuba Venegas and La Estrella in Cabrera Infante's Three Trapped Tigers. If we read the character of Rachel in this context, we see that her Platonism is not limited to the field of love. With its theatrical ambiance, its patently dialogic structure, and its detailed allusions to political events such as the 1912 Colored People's Uprising (65-72), there is in Rachel's Song an extended and ironic allusion to Plato's Myth of the Cavern and to the Utopian notion of the philosopher-king explained in Book Seven of Plato's Republic. In this context, Rachel's Song may be seen as a cautionary tale about the use and abuse of the discourse of desire and passion for political ends. It is a warning pertinent not only to the corrupt early Cuban Republic, where, according to Rachel, "the worst problems are fixed with drums and beer" (48), but also to the Revolutionary period, with its rhetoric of "Fatherland or Death" (Patria o Muerte), the chivalrous myth of the "Heroic Guerrilla Fighter" (el Guerrillero Heroico), its mass rallies of the people orchestrated by the government, and the histrionic and long-winded speeches of their maximum leader.

In Rachel's Song we see how Cuba, the long-desired republic, reaches its independence in 1902 as what might be called a "republic of desire," that is, a country where the manipulation of feelings and passions by the various social sectors has played a role in its cultural and political life that is almost as important as the determinations of geography and economics. In this sense, Rachel's Song suggests that the "republic of desire" founded more than a century ago still lives on in the Revolution that tried to overcome it.


Nothing could be further from the "strong woman," the energetic and frivolous demimondaine that is Rachel, it would seem, than the lachrymose and submissive Quiela in Dear Diego by Elena Poniatowska. However, as Barthes's epigraph suggests and as I hope to show here, Poniatowska's novel follows fundamentally the same line of writing-as-eros inaugurated by Barnet's novel.

Like Barnet, Poniatowska helped to forge and define the genre of the testimonial novel in Spanish America with the publication of two early works in this genre: Here's to You, Jesusa, and La noche de Tlatelolco (Massacre in Mexico, 1971). The first resembles Barnet's Biography of a Runaway Slave in its intention, origin, and structure: It is a first-person retelling of the "life and opinions" of Josefina Bórquez (who Poniatowska renames "Jesusa Palancares"), an elderly woman from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec who had been a camp follower and combatant during the Mexican Revolution and had ended up in a poor neighborhood of Mexico City, where Poniatowska the journalist met her, interviewed her, and decided to write a book based on their conversations. Like Esteban Montejo, the protagonist of Biography of a Runaway Slave, Jesusa impresses readers with her fierce and indomitable personality, which has remained so in spite of a life full of suffering. Also, as in Biography of a Runaway Slave, Here's to You, Jesusa displays the attempt by an author from the upper classes to identify with a lower-class individual, seeking to better understand the foundations of her nationhood, only to find in the end that the confrontation with this individual breaks down many of the myths and prejudices held by the author and the readers about national and personal identity. From its publication, readers of Here's to You, Jesusa were struck by the surprising and deeply critical new view the book offered of the Mexican Revolution from a woman's perspective, and also by Jesusa's lack of conventional Mexican nationalism:

That's why, when I was looking for work [in Mexico City], I would say: "Well, if they're Mexicans, don't bother giving me their address, because I'm not going there."

They may be my countrymen, but, frankly, I can't stand them. It's not that foreigners aren't bossy, but they do it in another way—they're less abusive and they don't pry into your life . . . . (Hasta no verte, Jesús mío 245)

This critical view of "Mexicanness" reaches a crisis point in Massacre in Mexico, a work that tells of one of the most serious sociopolitical catastrophes suffered by Mexico since the revolution: the killing of hundreds of peaceful protestors in the Plaza of the Three Cultures in the Tlatelolco district of Mexico City, committed on October 2, 1968, by members of the Mexican Army. By means of a collage of quotes that includes everything from interviews, press clippings, poems, and other literary texts to the graffiti scrawled on the walls, Poniatowska offered what became the first detailed and encompassing account of the massacre and one of the first open denunciations of the cover-up engineered by the Mexican government and by a government-coopted or intimidated media.

It is already commonplace to regard the Tlatelolco Massacre as the event that definitively ended the previously harmonious relations between a great many Mexican intellectuals and the regime of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional). Massacre in Mexico is particularly relevant in this context, since the work marks a specific moment of disillusionment with the hopes and promises of the Mexican Revolution. While it is true that the revolution had been criticized from the beginning by a number of writers and intellectuals (suffice it to recall Mariano Azuela's classic novel Los de abajo [The Underdogs, 1915]), at least until 1968 the illusion had remained that the Mexican political system, with all its faults, deserved to be supported. After Tlatelolco, that illusion could no longer be sustained, and I believe it is largely due to that sense of disillusionment that Poniatowska, like Barnet in the Cuban context, moves from the testimonial to the sentimental in Dear Diego.

Notwithstanding their critique of postrevolutionary Mexico and its nationalist discourse, Poniatowska's testimonial works (as well as many of her works of fiction and journalism) still show a strong desire to seek out the roots of Mexican identity. In Dear Diego, as will be seen, Quiela idealizes Mexico as a sort of Utopia or transcendent space. It is true, of course, that national identity has been a perennial theme of Spanish American authors, but in Poniatowska it is inseparable from her biographical background as a Paris-born daughter of French-Polish and Mexican parents, whose family took refuge in Mexico during World War II and ultimately settled there. A desire to identify with Mexico and Mexicanness is a recurrent motif in Poniatowska's work, appearing less as an intellectual project than as a vital necessity.

Poniatowska's search for Mexicanness is most immediately seen in her stylistic penchant for mimicking orality and the traits of popular Mexican dialect. This attempt to identify with the language of the streets and to distance herself from conventional literary language is probably what leads Poniatowska to claim in interviews that, as a child, she learned Spanish "with the maids . . . . In fact, until recently I still spoke using forms such as yo vie and nadiem" (García Pinto 184). Nevertheless, rendering the traits of Mexican popular dialect into a self-conscious medium such as literary writing can never be anything but a deliberate gesture. Significantly, Poniatowska states in the aforementioned interview that what first drew her attention to Josefina Bórquez was the way she talked: "I met her after hearing her talking in a communal clothes-washing basin. She really caught my attention; it was in a street near the center, in Revillagigedo street. I liked a lot how she spoke and so I looked her up" (García Pinto 181). Seeking out the speech of Josefina/Jesusa was for Poniatowska a search for the instruments with which to forge her own identity as a Mexican and as a writer.

But Poniatowska's "linguistic populism" is merely the starting point of a broader process of recovering a Mexican popular aesthetic in all its varied forms, from the lyrics of corridos, rancheras, and boleros to syncretic religious cults (such as Jesusa's spiritualism) and, of course, to visual arts and handicrafts. Testimonial narrative's anthropological bent had already paved the way for such a recovery, but Poniatowska's originality, in my view, lies in her awareness of the continuing importance of melodrama and sentimentalism in popular culture even when these were rejected by elite culture. When she writes Dear Diego, Poniatowska has already realized that Jesusa's peculiarly aggressive stoicism is an atypical trait, a trait not shared by most Mexicans, and that what is most characteristic of Mexican (and Spanish American) popular culture is its constant reaffirmation of "the right to weep"—el derecho de llorar, in Mexican dramatist Vicente Leñero's humorous formulation.

Poniatowska deals quite directly in Dear Diego with the tension between her need to belong to a community—to experience communion, in a sense—and the no less urgent need to affirm her individual subjectivity, her self, as a writer and as a woman. Sentimental discourse allows her to explore this situation, since the language of love and sentiment is also always moving between the extremes of shared experience—in matters of love "everyone is an expert," as Judith Belsey reminds us (ix)—and the most intense, almost egotistic subjectivity.

Dear Diego consists of a sequence of mostly fictional letters that try to recreate those sent by the Russian painter Angelina Beloff (nicknamed Quiela) to her celebrated husband, Diego Rivera, after he abandoned her in Paris in order to return to Mexico in 1920. The letters are followed by a brief third-person epilogue. Poniatowska's main source for these letters, as she indicates in the epilogue, is The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera (1963), a biography of Rivera by one of his U.S. admirers, Bertram Wolfe. Indeed, in Chapter 12 of his book, titled "Angelina Waits," Wolfe alludes in some detail to Angelina's letters to Diego, and even quotes extensively from them (111, 112-13, 115). Poniatowska incorporates those quotes, with some modifications, into her own text (Querido Diego 9-10, 59, 64-65, 69-70, 71). Moreover, in Chapter 6 through 11 of his book, Wolfe offers further details on Diego's life with Angelina Beloff, and about the general context of their life in Paris, which Poniatowska also uses to recreate Quiela's letters.

At first sight, Quiela resembles the suffering heroines of the eighteenth-century sentimental novelist much more closely than Rachel, since, like Pamela or Clarissa (Richardson's heroines), she unequivocally exemplifies goodness and nobility of character even as she withstands the blows of a hostile world and rejection from the man she loves. But the resemblance is deceptive in this case, since Quiela's story, unlike the eighteenth-century tales, does not have a happy ending; arguably, like Rachel's story, it lacks a definite ending, since Quiela remains unable to join with the object of her desire. Instead, for Quiela desire becomes an end in itself. "Lacking a response from Rivera . . . " Claudia Schaefer points out, "Beloff's subsequent letters are self-motivated and actually seem to respond to each other rather than to the absent lover, whose body (both literary and corporal) appears to have been replaced by the process of letter writing itself" (73).

Dear Diego carries out an inversion of values similar to that proposed by Barthes in A Lover's Discourse: "If I assume my dependency it is because for me it is a way to declare my demand: In the field of love, futility is not a 'weakness' or something 'ridiculous'. It is a sign of strength. The more futile it is, the more it declares and affirms itself as a strength" (Fragmentos 92). The novel does this by turning dependency into power and suffering into a means to achieve a superior form of knowledge. Such an inversion, which by now seems quite familiar, is only possible by means of eros and its writing. As in Rachel's Song, Poniatowska's novel explores the relation between writing and passion, that is, writing as eros, although in a far less distanced and ironic way than does Barnet's text.

This explains, to a certain extent, the mixed feelings Dear Diego generates in its readers, and perhaps especially in its female readers. This novel would seem to be designed to offend feminist sensibilities as well as antifeminist ones, since even readers less attuned to feminist issues may feel discomfort at the deeply servile and abject tone of Quiela's letters to Diego. Dear Diego may be seen as the perfect illustration of Barthes's ideas about the "obscenity" of sentimentalism in the context of a literary, cultural, and political tradition based in large measure on the rejection of subjectivity and the affects (Barthes, Fragmentos 193). In this particular sense, Dear Diego would certainly be a deeply "obscene" work: Just as Rachel shamelessly displays her body on the stage of the Alhambra Theater, Quiela shows the self-destructive depths of her passion with an embarrassing openness. If Rachel's Song, as discussed earlier, evokes in its discourse the aesthetics of the bolero, Dear Diego incorporates that aesthetics fully into its makeup, which is why its words are as direct and heartbreaking as the lyrics of the many boleros that insistently ask "Why don't you love me?" or cry out desperately "Love me!" or even recall the urgency of a love message:

Write to me . . .
Don't torment my life.
A letter in your handwriting
Will calm my suffering.

Poniatowska's turn to the epistolary genre in Dear Diego, besides being an ironic homage to one of the precursors of the testimonial or documentary genre (letters are "documents" par excellence), also marks a return to the literary-historical origins of sentimentalism, since a great many of the eighteenth-century sentimental romances—La nouvelle Heloïse, Werther, and Les liaisons dangereuses, among others—use the epistolary form. In this context, it should be remembered that epistolarity is consistently associated in these sentimental novels with femininity and, in general, with self-analysis, introspection, and intimacy.

The epistolary genre, furthermore, throws into sharp relief the link between writing and love. If in Rachel's Song the protagonist occasionally writes poetry and tries to turn herself into an author of sorts, in Dear Diego we find another "visual" artist (so to speak) in Quiela, who, for more urgent reasons, turns herself into an "author," with all this implies in terms of the power relations implicit in the acts of writing and reading.

Epistolarity is also often associated with the search for communicative immediacy through the use of a language that is straightforward and unadorned. In Dear Diego it would be more precise to say that the entire text wavers between the extremes of mediation and immediacy. On the one hand, despite their rhetoric of immediacy, letters—in Poniatowska's novel as well as in the epistolary tradition—are clearly a textual mediation. However much they use the "language of the heart" to bridge the gap with their readers, the fact remains that the letter itself attests to the absence and distance of the presumed interlocutor. The fact that Quiela's letters in Dear Diego do not receive a reply underscores the rhetorical and artificial character of the supposed immediacy of epistolary discourse.

On the other hand, by giving them access to Quiela's letters, the novel places readers in the position of the letters' intended addressee, Diego Rivera. Using the "found manuscript" technique that epistolary narrative derives from the romances of chivalry, the text creates a sensation of immediacy by placing its readers squarely in the middle of an ongoing sentimental drama to which readers are expected to reply—of which I will say more in a moment.

As may be seen, the epistolary technique in Dear Diego also evokes the zigzag movement between writing-as-eros and writing-as-agape that the new sentimental novels explore. From the point of view of eros, the language of Quiela's letters is profoundly passionate and full of suffering, due to Diego's rejection and distance. Although one might think that Quiela wishes to end her suffering by returning to an earlier state of conjugal bliss, the letters themselves show that her consensual marriage to Diego was already, from the outset, contentious and painful. An especially sad instance in this regard is seen in Quiela's account of the illness and death of Dieguito, their son, a situation in which Diego practically refused to get involved:

One afternoon you tried to read the newspaper and I still can't forget your gesture of desperation: "I can't Quiela, I don't understand anything about anything, I don't understand what's going on in this room." You stopped painting, Dieguito died, we went alone to the cemetery . . . . That day was atrociously cold, or maybe I was cold inside. You were absent, not once did you speak to me, you did not even move when I took you by the arm. (18)

As the letters continue, we realize that Quiela is willing to keep loving Diego although he does not love her back, in spite of the suffering he causes her. Quiela thus follows the strange masochistic logic of eros, in which suffering is a way of purifying the self and moving toward transcendence.

What does "transcendence" mean for Quiela? In Dear Diego, as in the discourse of courtly love, Quiela's love gradually moves away from Rivera's physical and spiritual being to become instead a more abstract love for Mexico. This love in turn becomes even more sublime as it turns into a desire for artistic purity. In one of the novel's most striking passages (which the real Quiela most likely would never have written), Quiela tells of how one night she felt possessed by the spirit of Diego, and in a hallucinatory metamorphosis, she turned herself into Diego and painted like him:

I thought that your spirit had possessed me, that it was you and not I who was inside me, that this feverish desire to paint came from you and I didn't want to lose a second of your possession. I even became fat, Diego, I burst at the seams, I couldn't fit inside the studio, I was tall like you, I fought with the spirits—you told me once you'd had dealings with the Devil—and I remembered it then because my thorax expanded so much that my breasts, my cheeks, my double chin, became swollen. I was swollen like a car tire. I found a mirror and there I saw my face puffed up like a bellows from the inside. What pounding in my temples! And the eyes! How red they were! Only then did I touch my brow and realize that I had a fever—blessed fever! I had to make the most of it, live this hour until the last dregs; I felt you on top of me, Diego, it was your hands and not mine that moved. After that I don't know what happened, I may have lost consciousness because I woke up in the morning lying next to the easel in the bitter cold. The window was open. I must have opened it during the night as you used to do when you felt your own body swelling up to cover walls, corners, covering so much land, going beyond its limits, breaking them. Naturally, I caught a chest cold, and had it not been for the solicitous kindness of the concierge, for her daily bouillons de poule, right now you would be saying goodbye to your Quiela. (23)

These lines are a perfect example of what a few years later, in a classic essay that would have benefited from including Poniatowska's text, feminist critic Susan Gubar observed about how many female artists have historically conceived their creative powers. For Gubar, female artists have often described their creativity "as an infusion from a male master rather than inspiration or commerce with a female muse" (303). Gubar further points out that "If artistic creativity is likened to biological creativity, the terror of inspiration for women is experienced quite literally as the terror of being entered, deflowered, possessed, taken, had, broken, ravished—all words which illustrate the pain of the passive self whose boundaries are being violated" (302). In Quiela's case, however, that "possession," which almost ends up as death from pneumonia, is regarded, following the conventions of love-as-eros, not so much as a terrifying experience as an askesis that destroys the bodies of lover and beloved alike, taking them both, to paraphrase Quiela, "beyond their limits."

In other letters Quiela tells of how, thanks to her relationship with Diego, "I became terribly Mexicanized" (46), and elsewhere she declares: "You have been my lover, my son, my inspiration, my God; you are my country; I feel myself Mexican; my language is Spanish even if I speak it badly" (55). In turn, for Quiela and her Russian and French artist-friends, in consonance with the Neo-Primitivism of the Avant-Gardes, Mexico becomes a metaphor of artistic and cultural transcendence:

Élie Faure told me the other day that, since you had gone, a wellspring of legends from a supernatural world had dried up, and that we Europeans needed this new mythology because poetry, fantasy, sensitive intelligence, and spiritual dynamism were all dead in Europe. All those fables you told about the Sun and the first inhabitants of the world, all your myths—we need them; we miss the spaceship in the shape of a plumed serpent that once existed, wheeled in the skies, and landed upon Mexico. (47)

However, in the narrative itself, "Mexico" ends up being as unreachable for Quiela as Diego. Although the third-person epilogue states that Angelina Beloff did manage to move to "the land she longed for" (72; that is to say, Mexico), the text does not give further information about Quiela's fate in Mexico save for an episode that underscores her separation from Diego: "[Quiela] did not seek out Diego, she didn't want to bother him. When they came across one another at a concert in Bellas Artes, Diego passed her by without recognizing her" (72).

Dear Diego tells the story of a passion that turns Quiela into a writer, an author, but also suggests that this was a failed enterprise, since Diego did not read her letters. At this level, it would seem that Dear Diego tells the tragic story of a love that consumes itself in the most absolute solitude and abandonment. Writing would then be like the residue of a lonely and infinite passion that denies its own life and seeks a final union with transcendence. Moreover, it would seem that we are witnessing the failure of sentimental writing, which, instead of being seductive, becomes importunate and pathetic. The loving and cultured but self-destructive Quiela would seem to be the reverse, as in a photographic negative, of the bitter, uncultured, and self-sufficient Jesusa: two faces of women in their relation with men, the world, and writing.

Nevertheless, as I pointed out in alluding to the technique of the "found manuscript," there are elements in Dear Diego that take the novel beyond the solipsism of writing-as-eros and link it instead to the search for communion, or agape. By presenting the text as a collection of letters, Dear Diego seeks to involve its readers in the fictional narrative, placing them in the position of the letters' addressee, that is to say, of Diego Rivera. We see here a mechanism similar to that found in Rachel's Song, in which an analogical relation is posited between the historical past and the present in which the text is being read. In Rachel's Song, it is the parallel between Republican Cuba and Cuba after the tenth anniversary of the Revolution. However, in Dear Diego Poniatowska goes even further by making use of figural allegory or prefiguration.

As Erich Auerbach writes in his classic essay "Figura" (1944):

Figural prophecy implies the interpretation of one worldly event through another; the first signifies the second, the second fulfills the first. Both remain historical events; yet both, looked at in this way, have something provisional and incomplete about them; they point to one another and both point to something in the future, something still to come, which will be the actual, real, and definitive event. (58)

For example, in the Bible, Adam next to the Tree of Knowledge is a figura Christi, that is, a prefiguration of Christ on the cross, and Christ in turn is the fulfillment and the supreme version of the image that Adam vaguely anticipates. This ancient mode of interpretation, which is rooted in Judeo-Christian providentialism and Biblical exegesis, returns in a renewed, secularized form in works of the early-twentieth-century narrative avant-garde (such Joyce's Ulysses) and is a favorite of the Spanish American Boom authors and their precursors. Poniatowska evokes it in Dear Diego by means of parallels between herself and Angelina Beloff: aside from being female artists, both have Slavic roots (Poniatowska's Polish, Beloff's Russian), both emigrate to Mexico, both display a strong desire to identify with Mexico and Mexicanness, and for both Diego Rivera is an emblem of Mexican identity.

However, if Quiela prefigures Poniatowska, Poniatowska in turn is a "fulfilled" version of Quiela. Poniatowska achieves this because she is able to do what Quiela could not: make Mexico (Diego?) read her letters, now turned into a novel. The title of a collection of journalistic chronicles by Poniatowska, Fuerte es el silencio (Strong is Silence, 1980) is highly suggestive in terms of Poniatowska's strategy in Dear Diego. To begin with, in this novel the "strength of silence" makes itself felt in Diego's monolithic silence, which is the silence of power, which does not need to speak to make its strength felt. Diego's silence is also that of the visual work of art, of the painting on canvas or the mural. Poniatowska appropriates this silence, in two ways: first, through the letters' textuality. Letters and documents are emblems of the absent voice, of the silence of the text. Secondly, Poniatowska carries out an ellipsis or rewriting of the context, which in this case is the biography of Diego Rivera written by Bertram Wolfe. Instead of surrounding Quiela's epistolary fragments profusely with commentary, as Wolfe does, Poniatowska discards Wolfe's masculine and authoritarian commentary and lets the letters "speak" for themselves. In this sense, Poniatowska, like many of the female writers discussed by Gubar, uses the strategy of the "blank page," which consists of not writing what the patriarchy and society expect her to write:

While male writers like Mallarmé and Melville also explored their creative dilemmas through the trope of the blank page, female authors exploit it to expose how woman has been defined symbolically in the patriarchy as a tabula rasa, a lack, a negation, an absence. But blankness here is an act of defiance, a dangerous and risky refusal to certify purity. The resistance of the princess [in Isak Dinesen's "The Blank Page"] allows for self-expression, for she makes her statement by not writing what she is expected to write. (305-306)

Writing, like the visual image, embodies the paradox of communication by means of silence, a paradox that Poniatowska uses in her text to the fullest. Moreover, unlike Quiela, Poniatowska is not only a professional writer, but also journalist, and she understands much better than her precursor what Diego Rivera also understood well: the power of public discourse. With her experience as a journalist, Poniatowska knows that the sentimental power of literature works best in a more public, less intimate context; an almost theatrical context in which, by means of a third individual (an actor or actress) the circuit of communication between author and reader is strengthened. Like Rachel on the stage of the Alhambra Theater, or like a bolero singer, the author of Dear Diego reveals Quiela's intimate amorous discourse to all and sundry. In doing so, Poniatowska redeems Quiela, allowing her letters to be read, ensuring that they reach not one but many addressees, while also challenging her readers to respond to Quiela's expressed need for love. As she does to Diego, Quiela also claims the attention of her readers, an attention that may lead to a whole gamut of responses, from irritation and polemics to compassion, love, or the chivalrous wish to "save" her, but which in any case seeks to establish a relation of proximity between Quiela and her readers, to turn Quiela into our "neighbor." In this context, the figure of the author appears as a go-between, a mediator who makes possible the love-as-agape between Quiela and the reader, between Quiela and Mexico, by means of the lachrymose conventions of sentimental fiction.


Earlier in this chapter, I argued that one of the deeper motivations for the turn to love and sentimentalism in the Spanish American narrative from the 1980s on is the intention of exploring the more seductive and vital aspects of writing, as opposed to the violence that has so often been associated with it. We have seen how Miguel Barnet and Elena Poniatowska took the first steps in the transition toward a new sentimental narrative from the point of departure of testimonial or documentary fiction. The latter, despite its rhetoric of sacrifice and obsession with violence, paved the way for sentimentalism by means of the renewed interest in individuals, in specific persons with their specific desires, needs, and circumstances, seeing them as the true agents of history and not as an anonymous mass subjected to socioeconomic determinations. Barnet and Poniatowska gave the subjectivity already present in the testimonial genre a new twist by incorporating the affective dimension and the symbolic systems by which this dimension is expressed. In Rachel's Song and Dear Diego we saw how the ruthless search for a collective "truth," as well as the view of existence as a struggle, that characterized testimonial narratives were replaced by the expression of individual needs and emotions and by a search for healing or convalescence, through love, of the wounds caused by the great social and ideological struggles of the previous years.

We also observed in these works of the new sentimental narrative a tension between two ways of conceiving the relation between love and writing: On the one hand, that of writing-as-eros, as passion, linked to suffering and violence, to knowledge and the realization of individual subjectivity, and on the other, writing-as-agape, as love for your fellows, linked to conventionalism, compassion, and the search for a sense of community.

In my reading of the works by Barnet and Poniatowska I pointed out how, despite the presence of numerous elements that could be associated with agape—for example, the allusions to popular music and to melodrama—in these two novels there still predominates the passionate view of writing that is also found in the Boom narratives and in the testimonial fictions the new sentimental narrative aspires to replace. Love as eros, with its enormous literary-historical prestige, still predominates in the writing of these inaugural works of neosentimentalism.

We are still faced, then, with the fundamental questions raised by this new narrative: Is it possible to produce, by means of amorous and sentimental themes, a new type of writing that will encourage the development of a true sense of community amongst authors, texts, and readers? Is it possible to free writing from the violence and disjunction that seem to be inherent to it, to create instead a writing based on love and communion, a generous and happy writing that will not repeat the conflicts of society and history? As will be seen in the next chapter, Chilean author Isabel Allende confronts these questions directly in her second novel, Of Love and Shadows (1984), and in the attempt to answer them she begins to make even clearer the outlines of the new sentimental narrative in Spanish America.


“A masterly, path-breaking discussion of an important trend, concentrating on an intelligent and pertinent selection of texts.”
César A. Salgado, Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese, University of Texas at Austin