Latino Fiction Literature Analysis Chapter 1 Part 1
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Latino Fiction &
he Modernist Imagination

By John S. Christie, Ph.D.

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6


 Part I Part I Part I Part 1 Part I Part I

Part II

Part II

Part II

Part II Part II Part II


Part III

Part III

Part III   Part III

Chapter One (Part I):
The Narrative Techniques of the Border

       At the end of Tomas Rivera's classic novel Y no se lo trago la tierra, the narrator defined what may be the central task for Latinos:  "to discover and rediscover and piece things together. That was everything" (152).  To form an identity out of a mixture of cultural ingredients, to recognize oneself as a sort of "stew" or "ajiaco" (to use Perez Firmat's idea), this is both the problem and the source of creativity for Latino writers.  What "thrills" Rivera's narrator, however, is not success in forging a clear identity out of a rediscovered past, or in reviving that past, but rather the knowledge that the process of remembering and understanding and retelling constitutes a reason to exist.  Latino writers are engaged in connecting the pieces of their complicated hybrid lives, not for the purpose of bringing to life some distant ancestral tradition, some mythic truth to live by, but in order to make sense out of the complexity of their own identities spread out in fragments before them.  The subsequent attempt on the part of Latinos to adjust their lives to the impossibility of wholeness, of totally belonging to something clear and certain, constitutes the central tension in their fiction, and it is that tension that can only be partially resolved in an acceptance of permanent dualness, of hybridity.   For the critic Bruce-Novoa, Chicano literary "space" (central to all his critical theory) lies between Mexican and North American culture, and between U.S. and Latin American literary influence.  This "retrospace" exploits the "inter cultural possibilities" of that "nothingness" between the two (Retrospace 98), "the space created by the tensions" of the interrelations of both worlds.  Chicana critic Gloria Anzaldua speaks of the writing from "cracked spaces," from a position between cultures, from the fringes of society.  Chicana poet, Pat Mora, titles her non-fiction collection of essays Nepantla, an Aztec word meaning "one torn between two ways" (Borderlands 78).  Modern Latino writers willingly inhabit and write about a border state, a liminal territory signaled by any number of catchy phrases from "Life on the Hyphen" to "Cultural Schizophrenia." 

              It has been argued that Chicana writers, and by inference other Latina writers as well, have only recently begun to shed taboos and to directly state what is on their minds regarding questions of sexuality, gender and ethnicity, whereas before such writers were handicapped by literary conventions and the academy's expectations for formal aspects of creative writing.[1]  While some Latino writers (both men and women) use their fiction, poetry and essays to express their "border state" directly -- in, for example, an autobiographical mode -- it is certainly true that others communicate the flavor and atmosphere of their liminal world through fictional artifice and that the literary devices they employ enhance rather than hinder an expression of Latino life.  Further, the scope of Latino creativity manifests itself in a variety of narrative techniques, at the same time Latino critiques of U.S. culture and inversions of accepted stereotypes (and other practices common to writers outside the margins of power) are displayed on both a literal and narrative level, both in the content and in the form.  Though Sandra Cisneros lamented the fact that the people she knew about (urban Latinos) were not represented in mainstream literature or in the academic discourse of the University of Iowa's Writers workshop,[2] it becomes increasingly clear with each of her new books that she has borrowed stylistic methods and techniques of craft from her literary precursors, adjusting them to tell her own stories of Chicanas in Chicago and Texas.  In fact, it is reasonable to conclude that any Latino writer, when traveling through the U.S. University system, would necessarily pick up the same canonical basis for their art as any mainstream writer would.  To deny this fact is to ignore or underestimate the Latino writer's expertise in narrative skill.  Since the formal aspects of fiction, often because of the demands they put upon the reader, can generate the power of the writing, an exploration of the roots of the narrative modes Latino writers experiment with should reveal the depth and vitality of their craft and consequently, their ideas.   It is in part the purpose of this study to explore those formal narrative techniques which encourage readers to share in the complexities and dualities of the Latino labyrinth.    

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The British modernists, confronted with the overt discontinuity of World War I, industrialization and the explosion of accepted ideals, sought to portray their world in fragmentary systems of narrative.  Their effort to put together, juxtapose or balance the "heap of broken images" bears similarities to the intentions of Latino writers today.   Much of the cinematic quality -- Pound saw the change from rural to urban mirrored in a shift from narrative to cinematic glimpse -- what Kenner calls the "aesthetic of glimpses" (69) finds its way into Latino fiction especially in the collage work of Roberto Fernandez (in some ways an oral Dos Passos) or the "estampas" of Rolando Hinojosa (reminiscent of Faulkner's "postage stamp" Yoknapatawpha) or in the collected snippets of conversation and narrative in Rivera's ...Y no se lo trago la tierra, the understanding and ordering of which constitutes the narrator's key to psychological survival.  As Pound saw the use of fragmentary lines (in Sappho's poetry) as valid in conveying a sense of memory and bits of the past, so Latino writers use this "aesthetics of glimpses" to communicate their own momentary laments at lost pieces of non-European American life: culture, food, music, and oral language.  Ed Vega, for instance, expresses his Nuyorican oral culture via what he calls "amusing anecdotes" (Mendoza's 15) incorporating a Puerto Rican tradition into his literary technique.  If these short, "funny stories...with a meaning" as J.L.Torres in the story "My Father's Flag" (265) calls them are typical of Puerto Rico, their use is also a natural result of modernist prose.  Vega's Mendoza's Dreams, a novel built of interconnecting tall tales, is a clear example of this fragmented, multi-voiced fiction that exemplifies Latino modernist craft.  Sandra Cisneros's very short modernist "lyrical sketches" echo the influential Uruguayan writer Jose Enrique Rodo's "parables" (Monegal Borzoi Vol. I 340) and the Guatemalan Augusto Monterroso's "art of compression," in his  "microcuentos" or micro stories (Lindstrom 4).  Both these early 20th century Latin American writers began the century profoundly influenced by the aesthetics of "modernismo," just as Cisneros and Vega (in the closing decades of the same century), would be guided in their craftsmanship by the modernist imagination.


            British Modernist thought resulted from various kinds of historical collapses, artistic changes, world events and the influx of individuals who viewed the existing traditions and circumstances through the eyes of the marginal outsider.  As James, Pound, Joyce, Eliot, and Conrad privileged their peripheral viewpoints in order to attack and critique the dullness of what they found in turn of the century English literature, so do modern Latino writers take aim at severe political, economic, and sociological complexities inherent in cross cultural life within the U.S. today.  They poise themselves between cultural and geographical borders in a position with unique perspective. 

            E. M. Forster's complaint with the modernists and their distance from economic reality (James's characters who exist without economic or language problems in unreal settings -- who bounce from garden to garden in Europe) points directly at a major difference between "high" British modernists (Woolf, Pound, Eliot, Joyce) and current Latino writers.  It was the opinion of William Carlos Williams (whose under-valued Puerto Rican background is just now coming to light[3] that "The Waste Land" had set back poetry because it called for attention to the "classroom" rather than to "the locality" which "should give...fruit" to "the essence of a new art form" (Bradbury  55).   Following their Latin American counterparts (busy pursuing, since mid-century what Carlos Fuentes called "La nueva novela hispanomerica"), Latino writers center their work upon the fruit of Latino existence which lies outside formal education (the classroom), and is deeply embedded in the reality Forster missed in the characters of Henry James.  William's "fruit," an apt word if one considers the edenic and tropical quality of Latin America in fiction, refers to the lives and cultures of the underestimated Americas whom Williams saw as the subject of a truly "new" art.  Though toward the end of his life, Pound was to speak eloquently of gathering "from the air, a live tradition or from a fine old eye, the unconquered flame," around that famous year of 1910 (when "human character changed" -- Woolf  "Mr. Bennet" 96, King Edward died, and the first Post-Impressionist Exhibition hit London), he was calling for a rigorously academic pursuit, a journey down obscure and distant scholarly channels.  Williams, on the other hand, was examining (literally) the detailed world around him in its most practical and obvious manifestations.  The difference is not important because individual poets chose distinct subjects, but rather because the impact of those subjects upon the sensibility of the poets was so dramatically different.  The modernist tendency to highlight the past, the unconscious, and therefore distance the poet from reality sometimes produced a literature filled with connotations of alienation, despair, "bleakness, darkness and disintegration" (Bradbury 26).  Juxtaposed against the ordered past, the lofty traditions of European culture, the everyday reality of industrialization and urbanization of city life in England seemed morbidly decayed and destitute.

             The modernists' portrayal of a barren reality and their emphasis upon the isolated and ineffectual individual in society vividly contrasts with the exuberance of first Latin American writers and later Latino writers as they approach the reality of their worlds.  The reasons for this difference lie in the fact that the institutions and traditions lauded by an Eliot weren't necessarily esteemed by those literary figures outside the margins of control.  To those within the walls of "Oxbridge" things looked gloomy as traditions and values appeared to be crumbling, but for those, like Virginia Woolf, who having been denied access to education because of those very traditions and now watched the "crisis" from university lawns, the changes in society must have been more welcome.  Something similar in U.S. academia is certainly happening presently as those who mourn the passing of "cultural literacy" and the breakdown of the dominance of the English language stand on one side while minority, multi-cultural, post-colonial writers and scholars stand on the other.

           At the time of British modernism's peak (impossible to determine exactly but regarded as roughly between 1910 and 1925), the same anti-nostalgia was part of those writers even further distanced from European tradition, namely, Latin Americans, and it is certainly true today for their U.S. descendants and counterparts: Latino writers.  World War I may have loomed in Europe by 1910, but the date for Latinos, especially Chicanos is more closely tied to the height of the Mexican revolution when Porfirio Diaz and all he represented (U.S. oil companies, wealthy landowners etc.) first began to fall.  Virginia Woolf could not have been the only person to notice that 1910 was to change relationships between "masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children" or to conclude that such change, though radical, presented positive aspects for those previously deprived in diverse ways.  Mexican writers were not afforded the luxury of separating themselves so drastically from a political reality as British modernists were and while experimental techniques eventually were handed down, the spiritual desolation of alienated individuals was less a factor.  U.S. troops occupied Cuba off and on through the heyday of modernism (1898-1902, 1906-1909, 1912, and 1917-1922) which helped shape Cuban 2Oth century fiction in a naturalistic, social and political mode, following the direction of Jose Marti  It wasn't until the 1930's that modernist narrative patterns become noticeable in the works of Carpentier and Lydia Cabrera -- among other exiles.  In Puerto Rico, the change from Spanish to United States domination led literary figures to see in modernism, not its themes of alienation and the unconscious, but "the new ideas it contained about literature and culture" which allowed Latin Americans like Jose Marti to see "national culture as an artificial construct, laboriously put together by an intellectual elite" (Foster 565).  

            A commitment on the part of 20th century writers of fiction to the political realities of Latin America grew out of what was perhaps a more removed form of modernism in Latin America than was the case in Europe.  Scholars of Spanish America refer to Modernismo as a distinctly separate and different literary movement from the "Modernism" associated with Joyce and Pound.  Modernismo arrived in the new world from Europe (France particularly) roughly between 1890 and 1893, years before high British modernism took hold in London.  It brought, especially to its chief disciple, Ruben Dario, its familiar characteristics of fore-grounding language over content, "violations of accepted expression" and the use of personas (Davidson 1).   It opened the way for explorations into inner thoughts and mental conditions like boredom, depression, anguish, obsession, and emphasized the use of embellished, mannered and decorated language.   Modernismo represented  a "quest for distinction and artistic uniqueness."  It rejected sentimentality, naturalism, and the romantic "outpouring of spontaneous emotion" (1-6).  Though one could argue with the general theme in Luke's attack on modernism (1963), Latin America's primary modernist was certainly an example of one removed from his society (he wrote practically nothing of his native Nicaragua), and his work was isolated from common life.  He was bent on capturing individual sense experiences, and perhaps it is because of his self-conscious search for stylistic perfection that the backlash toward socially committed fiction in Latin America was stronger than in Europe.  Where Woolf and Pound were social creatures and the modernism of Joyce was never that distant from his own Dublin political reality, Dario "and the modernistas became intoxicated with France" (Gonzalez Echevarra 29), pushing poetic language to its symbolic, metaphorical extreme and distinctly separating their art from certain "American" realities.  For women, the exoticism of modernismo provided a rallying point around which to argue in a different and vitally political direction.  Sylvia Molloy has argued that modernismo excluded woman by speaking of her solely as "subject matter," as "passive recipient," as "commodity," and as "the most valuable piece in its museum" (Castro Klar? 109).  One could not make the same argument for European modernism as readily since the writings of Virginia Woolf, Kathryn Mansfield, Rebecca Webb, Stevie Smith, Jean Rhys and Gertrude Stein are so integral to the modernist movement.  Neither was it as necessary to combat modernism's "homosocial and homoerotic characteristics" (109) in Europe as it was for Latin American women writers like Castellanos, Garro, Mistral, and Victoria Ocampo.  Methods, therefore, of "writing the body" provided these writers with the means of rewriting or reassembling themselves in order to confront the biased "machismo" of Latin American culture, in part because of the restrictive facets of modernismo.  As a reaction to the confines of pure style (in search of the universal truth), Latin American women attempted to legitimize the individual and the particular.

            By the time the classic works of British modernism had made an impact upon writers in Latin America, during the 20's and 30's, Modernismo had given way to Realism and Naturalism and the purely aesthetic modes of writing had been to some extent politicized.  Led by the example of Rodan's famous essay, Ariel, in which Shakespeare's Caliban is cast as the materialistic U.S. and Ariel embodies the lofty spirituality of Latin America, the innovative writers of the 1930's -- writers of the Avant Garde -- combined experimental, formal innovations (derived from both types of modernism) with a vivid enthusiasm for their own American world.  It is this group that Lindstrom sees as being most closely associated with the modernism of London and the Parisian Latin Corner (8).  Still, in terms of narrative technique, the similarities between modernismo and European  modernism need to be mentioned because Latino writers, poised between both strands of aesthetic influence, could very well have drawn their artistic expertise from either side.  Both forms of modernism made use of other embedded languages, de-emphasized plot, and concentrated on "the vital rhythmic qualities to prose" (13) -- Pound's avoidance of the metronome, his "absolute rhythm."   Where the movements differ and where the Avant Garde writers followed the European trends was with regard to the now famous dictates of brevity and clarity and specific images put forward in Pound's "Imagist doctrine," and exemplified in Eliot's precise, unmannered descriptions.  The embellishments of Latin American modernismo gave way to Avant Garde simplicity and exactitude -- "no superfluous word" -- while fragmentation, irony and the distortions inherent in the use of personas replaced the aesthetic whole.  This "second phase" of modernism in Latin America challenged the aesthetics of elegance and distance, creating a refined style with a new emphasis upon an escape from Spanish (and European) culture and an interest in a Latin American "cosmopolitan spirit" (Davidson 24). 

             Fernando Alegra writes in his Nueva historia de la novela hispanoamericana that the avant garde writers "escaped" toward Western culture while remaining conscious of their "American social reality," and therefore looked for narrative flexibility to reflect that reality (108).  The first "new" novels, according to the critic Eduardo Camacho Guizado, were Al filo del agua by Agusto Ynez (1950) and Pedro Paramo (1955).  These writers, building on modernist experimentation consciously blended American subjects with European style, melding "a regional subject with subjective modern aesthetics (Alegra 108).   Alejo Carpentier had questioned "how to write in a European language -- with its Western systems of thought --- about realities and thought structures never seen in Europe" (J.D. Saldivar  92), and later Latin American writers of the so-called "Boom" generation would expand upon the narrative techniques of modernism in order to further confront this problem.  The result of this questioning was to become "The new novel" ("La nueva novela latinoamericano"), the dominant characteristic of which is "magic realism."[4]

            Writers like Rulfo and Garcia Marquez were concerned not just with the reality that confronted them in its bizarreness (butterflies, myths, legends, folk tales, superstitions), but with the formal portrayal of these things for Europeans.  From the early 1920's on, Latin American writers did not cut themselves off from their immediate reality; they were "exotistas, preciosistas, alegoricos" in one novel and "realist revolutionaries in the next" (Alegria 110).  They were politically aware, and struggling to record "the marvelous in the real" that surrounded them and that had been consistently distorted and misrepresented in European texts.  It is this desire to recreate, to rewrite, to renarrate existing cultural realities that Latino writers share with their Latin American counterparts.  The tools of the trade, it seems, come from modernist craft, and are geared toward the altering of Eurocentric perception and the sensitizing of readers.  

           If the Postmodernism spirit has something to do with understanding that a "logocentric" truth is an illusion, that universalism must always give way to relativeness, many Latino writers are Postmodernist.[5]   Yet, Rosaura Sanchez is certainly correct in recognizing that Chicano fiction (and Latino fiction as a whole) is only "tangentially" Postmodernist ("Postmodernism" 12) because, despite its use of modernist / Postmodernist narrative techniques, it does not deny entirely humanist subjectivity, or historical representation.   There is a strong sense of particularity and specific time and place.   Often, as post-colonialist critics are quick to point out, the drive toward finding the universal, the global truth in human characters thinly disguises a way to impose one's own limited understanding upon others by declaring something to be true overall.   Latino writers incorporate a technically advanced storytelling mode, one that allows (even demands) multiperspective, polyphonic understanding on the part of writer and reader.[6]  Where realism and its authoritative, omniscient narrator lends itself to conclusive writing, and where early modernist works like Ulysses hinted at a controlling writer behind the scenes (paring his fingernails) even while the text itself fractured into complex, broken images, Latino writers excel at using modernist methods to wrench the text away from any conclusive, one-dimensional interpretation.  Fragmentation in Latino fiction underlines the essentiality of shifting, relative perspectives, of multifaceted characters with complicated identities.  It helps the Latino writer, as Akers points out in his discussion of Chicano fiction, to "expand his [or her] narrative scope" (133).  At the same time, fragmented texts resemble the first New World Chronicles and this formal allusion to what Nieto reminds us were the first examples of "European literary documentation in America (241) often points to the flaws and misconceptions buried in European narratives of historical "truths."  Latino fiction's modernist twists of point of view, frames and metaframes, and stories within stories both emphasize the work's fictionality and simultaneously portray the multivoiced Latino world without implying total denial of practical historical reality.  

            Critics have argued before that minority groups have always felt the sense of alienation and fragmentation that Postmodernism often highlights.[7] The techniques of fracturing narrative point of view which innovators like Faulkner utilized extensively and which seem such a crucial aspect of recent Latino fiction reflect a decentered experience common to marginalized people which is also, as Harper says, a "constituent of the postmodern condition" (Harper 8).   Where the modernist focused upon the "alienation" of the subject, the postmodernist's concern is the "fragmented condition of the human subject" (23).  Writing mostly about Latin American Literature, Emily Hicks speaks of "Border Writing," categorized by "fragmentation in cultural, linguistic, and political deterritorialization" (Intro xxiv), and much of Latino fiction falls under her label by dwelling on the "differences in reference codes between two or more cultures" and depicting "those who live in a bilingual, bicultural, biconceptual reality" (xxv).

            The freedom of modernist and postmodernist narrative styles allows Latino writers to explore the ambiguities of a complex reality.  The complexity and variety of their discourse therefore mirrors the multifarious Latino world.  This is not to say that autobiographical (or testimonial) fiction is somehow flawed, but neither can one agree with Gloria Anzaldua, the co-editor of This Bridge Called My Back, in her essay "Speaking in Tongues" or in the preface to her anthology of women's writing Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras.  Her denouncing of what she calls the "pseudo-intellectualizing" (Bridge 165) of academic writers, her rejection of "abstraction and the academic learning, the rules" (173) and her conviction that "academic language" with its "theoretical babble" (Making Face Intro xxiii) and "esoteric bullshit" (Bridge 165) is a tool of the colonizer demonstrate a somewhat counterproductive argument.  A creative writer's attention to the "sacred bull, form," far from being restrictive, can often enhance a fictional work by doing exactly what Anzaldua advocates: shock readers "into new ways of perceiving the world" (172).  It is the use of "frames and metaframes" in a novel like Cecile Pineda's Face, and the twisted chronologies of action or swings of narrative point of view in writers like Viramontes and Vega that truly distort and alter perspective, that communicate the "discontinued and incomplete discourse" (Making Face Intro xvii) Anzaldua desires.   Earl Shorris, author of Latinos, whose notions of language are often debatable ("Spanish is not a good language to be spoken by women" 119), argues that the Latino sense of time is somehow linked to the Spanish subjunctive tense which "hesitates, ponders, questions" where English pronounces with clarity andemphasis (116).  This could surely be a factor in Latino fiction which attempts to convey via non-linear, non-chronological narrative framework some sense of the Latino's ambiguity and tendency to reject "universals."   Thus, the thinking behind a modernist story like Woolf's "The Mark on the Wall" which highlights the haziness of logocentric truths would hold special importance to Latino writers; the formal devices of the modernists would therefore serve them well, as we see in works like Ron Arias's Road or Pineda's Face. 

            In his final "Drafts and Fragments" of his Cantos, Pound speaks of his inability to "make it cohere," of a "tangle of words unfinished" (CXVI).  A similar sense of futility underlies the fiction of Latino writers to some extent.  "To make Cosmos --," Pound writes, cutting the sentence off as if to confirm the impossibility of making order from Chaos, to reconcile the bits and pieces of one's life into a sensible whole, to gather together in coherent design the "broken images."  It is almost as if modern Latino writers begin with Eliot's "I can connect nothing with nothing," and what changes is not the vehemence of the endeavor, but the attitude toward a necessary failure.  At times there is even delight in the absurdity of the attempt.  In some works there is fragmentation because the notion of concrete wholes and one-dimensional positivism is purposely being questioned.  A character such as Jose Rafa may be destroyed by fear as the familiar traditions he abides by crumble around him, but some Latino writers and their protagonists delight in the inconclusiveness of their lives.  The need to make everything "connect" is less a dilemma than an opportunity to explore the multiple characteristics of Latino hybridity.  We never know, for instance, whether Felicia in Dreaming in Cuban actually pushes her lover/husband from a roller coaster, or merely dreams it, or whether Celia's son Javier dies or not, or whether Pilar and her mother are finally reconciled.  There is a sense of open-ended "writing beyond the ending."  Even more suggestive of this point is the convoluted, "telenovela" plot of Castillo's SoFar From God where the author never makes it clear what happens in the end.   It seems that Francisco, out of jealousy, abducts (using words) Esmeralda, because he is in love with Caridad who shares a special relationship with the kidnapped victim.  He takes her off in his pickup and murders her in the desert (213), an incident foreshadowed by an episode with a gun wielding terrorist on a highway northeast of Santa Fe  She returns as a ghost and Caridad and Esperanza go to the Indian pueblo ruins at Acoma where Esmeralda sees Francisco and runs off the cliff, taking Caridad with her (like a kite) and neither are found again.  But nothing in these convoluted events is absolutely clear, nor is it meant to be.   The playful changes of tone, and experiments in language (there is a war of cliche at one point) outrank the need for consistency of plot or thematic closure.  

            Latino writers take hold of modernist narrative devices flexible enough to demand that readers share their sense of incertitude.  This is not to say that all Latino fiction incorporating some form of stylistic experimentation is inherently ployphonic.  Margarita Engle's Singing to Cuba is a case in point.  The narrative alternation Engle imposes upon her story of Castro's "secret war" merely shifts from a first person journalistic narrator to a third person realist account of her uncle's fate at the hands of the Cuban government.  The result is a didactic novel written to expose a political condition ("the Captive Towns") on the island, and nowhere is the reader encouraged to entertain more than one perspective or feel sympathetic toward characters with differing views.   Guy Garcia attempts to complicate his novel Obsidian Sky by incorporating the journals of a 16th Century Aztec shaman within his modern day mystery of a Chicano anthropologist in Mexico city.  While this text within a text clarifies Aztec mythology, the narrative is otherwise straight forward and the novel's thematic concerns entirely unambiguous.  A bit more inventive is the title story in Virgil Suarez's Welcome to the Oasis about a "marielito" refugee which is broken into twenty sections of a page or two in length.  These divisions, at first seemingly unnecessary, actually enhance the story by mimicking the sort of fractured vision, and dangerously confined perspective the Cuban refugee has of his new environment.  His momentary glimpses of people coming in and out of the "Oasis Apartments" where he has been employed are paralleled in Suarez's cinematic images, choppy prose, and present tense descriptions.  The breaks between events, by denying causality, emphasize the innocent painter's unjustified murder. 

           Cecile Pineda divides her novel Frieze into 120 sections, narratively paralleling the 120 sections of the carvings of Borobudur in Java,[8] but her novel Face is a work even more firmly based on this kind of playful aesthetic as opposed to linear plot structure.  The main character, Helio Cara (translated as "face" in both Spanish and Portuguese), a poor Brazilian, is left literally faceless as the result of a fall which occurs one rainy night in a Rio "favela."  Pieces of his story are revealed in short imagistic glimpses -- a style that mimics Helio's own reconstruction of the events that led to his fall and his "recovery."  These "loose fragments," as Bruce-Novoa notes, provoke in the reader a sense of disorientation similar to the main character's ("Deconstructing" 77). As Helio (like the "half-man, Half beast" face in his old boss's pictures) makes himself whole, the reader gathers together fragments of his story.   Pineda's fleeting objective descriptions, devoid of authorial commentary, parallel Helio's glimpses of the world as he regains consciousness after the accident.  The entire novel is framed by a prologue spoken by a plastic surgeon, and is therefore an attempt by the doctor to reconstruct Helio's life just as the reader will in the process of reading the book.  The narrative structure therefore is an essential part of the novel, for without the frame, or without the at times cryptic (and lyrical) delivery of pieces of the story (i.e. fragmented dreams and memories), the novel would be deprived of any meaning beyond the particular Brazilian slum.  As Gonzales-Berry claims, the disjointed, scattered events of the first part are replaced in Part II by a more or less chronological pattern, thus mirroring Helio's moving from chaos to order (Review 107).  Helio himself reads a text on the practice of plastic surgery, and like the reader, uses language to reconstruct himself.  According to Bruce-Novoa, his is a "journey of self-discovery through suffering, degradation, renunciation and disciplined work" ("Deconstructing" 76).  From the corrupted capital to the town's central plaza of Bomfim (Good End) in the "Hinterlands," Helio journeys toward his natural origin (his mother's home) where he confronts the reality of his individual capacities and rebuilds his face/identity/life.  Planting trees rather than cosmetic hair styling, he is forced to discard the superficiality of inorganic city values.   He throws away the handkerchief he hides beneath (when a gunman tries to kill him) and, finally and most importantly, he confronts the repressed memory of his father's murder by a man in "black, polished leather shoes" (186) which, the reader remembers belong to his dandyish stepfather, Julio Cara.   His father "smelled of earth," Julio of "toilet water" (131).  Pineda follows the description of the shoes with an allusion to another avenger, Orestes (Oreste the butcher - 132).   The reader must connect the "luminous details" buried in fragments in order to understand Helio's reasons for leaving his mother's farmland to begin with (escaping such a stepfather and possibly the betrayal of his adulterous mother), as well as the extent of his psychological recovery. [9] 


[1]See the introductory chapter to the anthology Infinite Divisions by Rebolledo and Rivero or the introduction to Gloria Anzaldua's anthology MakingFace, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras.

[2]Quoted in an interview printed in Partial Autobiographies: Interviews with Twenty Chicano Poets, Wolfgang Binder, ed. Erlangen: Verlag, Palm & Enke, 1985.

[3]See the Puerto Rican poet, Julio Marzan's book The Puerto Rican Roots of William Carlos Williams

[4]See Chapter Two

[5]See Rosaura Sanchez's article on "Postmodernism" for the debate about what the word means

[6]According to Jay Clayton, storytelling can be "empowering" because stories help people "escape disciplinary control" (The Pleasures of Babel 96-97). They "preserve the memory of successful tactics" (97), link people to the oral past, and "create community" (106).  As the Curandera Remedios in Sandra Benitez's A Place Where the Sea Remembers knows, storytelling means remembering in the "heart, where nothing dies away because it is remembered" (142).

[7]Phillip Brian Harper makes this case in Framing the Margins: The Social Logic of Postmodern Culture. Oxford University Press, 1994

[8]In Frieze, the powers and forces of cyclical nature overtake the workings of man.  Thematically, the novel has several parallels to Carpentier's The Kingdom of this World, not the least of which would be the building of a monumental structure for the glorification of a selfish ruler at the expense of the poor.  In both works, what is sacrificed is the voice of the people, and what Bruce-Novoa calls, their "vernacular history," and in both works, the monuments crumble into ruins as the natural world triumphs.    

[9]David Johnson, in his article "Face Value (An Essay on Cecile Pineda's Face)" has argued a somewhat different interpretation of the book, claiming that Helio's recovery is paradoxical, since the face he constructs is ultimately "unremarkable" and "perfectly institutional" (82). Rather than recovered his humanity, his identity, Helio, Johnson claims,  has merely learned to play the game, has made himself "faceless" (and therefore acceptable to "technological" society which "takes as [its] goal the reduction of the human to the inhuman - 82).  Despite the power of this argument, Helio does grow in a positive way -- especially in his coming to terms with his memory.   That he "reinscribes himself within society" is both constructive because he as an individual accomplishes the task, resurrects himself despite society's obstacles, and deconstructive because he must lose his unique (albeit grotesque) appearance in order to do so.  The novel reads both ways, precisely as a result of the pluralistic narrative structure.

Continue: Chapter 1 Part II


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July 06, 2009
Copyright 2006 design and content by John S. Christie and Jose B. Gonzalez
Copyright 2006 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature, Pearson Education, Inc.
Copyright 2006 Latino Fiction and the Modernist Imagination, John S. Christie