(De)constructing confession: transgressing borders in Yanitzia Canetti's Al otro lado.
Starting with its title, Yanitzia Canetti's novel Al otro lado (1997) suggests a division between sides that invites the reader to contemplate the concept of borders. The ambiguity of the title's reference to "sides" provides the foundation for Canetti's text, which both underscores and challenges the boundaries that shape people's lives, especially those who form part of the Cuban (literary) diaspora. (1) In the unnamed female narrator's proclaimed search to understand the "other side" of herself, she questions the nature of identity as she recounts the events of her life that take her from an unnamed island in the Caribbean to Manhattan. The novel's allusions to Cuba and its revolutionary government are not explicit, nor does emigration dominate the narrative; yet the narrator's struggle with boundaries--gendered, sexual, political, literary, and geographical-exposes the relationship between the articulation of subjectivity anal the narratives that shape identifications. (2)
One of the first things that strikes the reader about Al otro lado is the confessional framing of the narrator's diasporic experiences. Unlike many modern forms of confession, which are often defined solely by an intimate first-person narrative voice, Canetti's confession employs components of traditional religious confession, such as the recounting of transgressive acts in the presence of a priest in a confessional booth, in order to examine secular concerns regarding identity. By evoking religious confession, Canetti emphasizes the interaction between confessor and confessant in which the confessional relationship reveals a constant negotiation of power and authority that is intimately related to social and sexual norms. (3) Madeline Camara observes that religious confessions, especially within Latin America's colonial history, have served as models of subversive writing to which women have turned through the years because of the genre's attention to female sexuality and transgression (121-22). Within this perspective, texts like colonial nuns' spiritual life stories, or vidas, provide a foundation and discourse for women to highlight the interplay between gender and authority wherein transgression plays a significant role in exploring the limits, or boundaries, of societal expectations. (4) In Al otro lado, two of its most important elements, confession and diaspora, are linked through Canetti's use of transgression to reconstruct narratives of gender, sexuality, and nation-state.
Let us consider how confession and diaspora intersect through the association between transgression and movement in general. With regard to the transnational characteristics of the Cuban diaspora, Eliana Rivero turns to etymology, connecting the Spanish traspasar to the Latin transpassare in order to link movement across or through space to its spiritual counterpart in terms of "trespassing" or transgression, noting that "imaginers of the transnation have been seen as spiritual transgressors" (202). Aihwa Ong also observes that the prefix "trans" is suggestive of a variety of crossings, including the "transgressive aspects of contemporary behavior and imagination that are incited ... by the changing logics of state and capitalism" (qtd. in Mishra 18-19). This link between ideological and geographical transgression, or movement, is key both to Canetti's novel and as a previously unexplored aspect of confessional discourse that teases out the complexities of subjectivity when borders, and people, are in flux. (5)
Canetti structures the novel as an oral confession of the life of a young woman. Through her confessional episodes with a priest, the protagonist examines her childhood and adolescence, incarceration as a university student, and sexual adventures as a young woman until she leaves the island for the United States. Each chapter carries its own title and begins with a section in italics, including the narrator's description of the church, the priest, and their movement to the confessional, all of which take place in the narrator's present perspective. The confessional episode that follows is not in italics and represents the narrator's recounting to the priest of an event or events that occurred in her past. (6) In this way, the novel itself contains two layers of confession. The most obvious level is the narration of confessional episodes that the priest hears; on another level, the entire text we read, which includes the text in italics as well as the confessional episodes, forms another confession. This meta-confessional structure invites the reader to contemplate the role of confession itself as a tool for self-discovery and agency. For this reason, I will examine Canetti's use of confession from three perspectives: the confessional environment, namely references to the church and the priest as symbols of authority; the confessional "text," that is, the spoken confessional episodes that focus on transgression as a form of power; and, lastly, the articulation of absolution. In each of these three components of confessional discourse, we see an underlying theme of border crossings that links diaspora to the confessional process.
Representing Confessional Space
Canetti plays with confessional discourse by splitting the text into two sections, using the section in italics to introduce and comment upon the themes of the confessional episodes. These sections in italics at the beginning of each chapter provide the reader with the narrator's perspective of the confessional process in which she problematizes the concept of authority. Both the physical and metonymic Church and the priest take on multiple meanings as the narrator struggles with how to tell her story to a confessor. The narrator is often ambivalent about her confession, both utilizing and rejecting a rhetoric of guilt, which highlights her inability to "take sides," another play with literal and figurative space. This ambivalence, or space "in-between," connects her confession with the indeterminacy of the diasporic condition, in which conventions of power and identity are challenged.
Canetti carefully constructs the confessional text as a way to examine the role of institutionalized discourse. The representation of such a traditional institution as the Catholic Church can both reflect and contest the authority of revolutionary Cuba. On the one hand, the authoritative and patriarchal stronghold of the Church lends itself to comparisons with the revolutionary government; for example, Lois Smith links the revolutionary government with the Church, arguing that "In many ways, ... the Cuban revolution resembles that traditional watchdog of Cuban morality--the Catholic Church" (188). On the other hand, within the Revolution's commitment to secularism, Catholicism itself becomes a subversive tool to contest the Regime. Therefore, in the broadest sense, the novel plays with the symbols of confession and confessional discourse as a way to locate the text within and without any totalizing discourse or ideology.
As the novel begins, the church first orients the reader to the confessional environment that Canetti attaches to the protagonist's search for identity. Every chapter that takes place on the island begins with the narrator entering a gothic church, which is described in detail but whose description changes each time. Canetti dedicates most of the entire first chapter's section in italics to the description of the imposing yet alluring church as the perfect place for her to speak about herself in the form of a confession. As both building and institution, the church evokes the past as well as a rebirth or creation: "todo esta aqui desde hace tiempo. Pero huele a Nuevo para mi, como las paginas de un libro acabado de salir de una imprenta" (11). The association between the church and a newly written book ties authorship to her project, thus introducing the metafictional aspect to her oral confession fiaat bridges both physical and literary space. Not only does the red carpet leading up to the altar symbolize a voyage down the birth canal, but the church itself first becomes a cave, and later a womb, which she wants to explore and from which she seeks to emerge without fear (12-13, 169). Annegret Thiem notes Canetti's personification of the church in sexual terms, in which the hermaphroditic structure performs a penetration of the female body that violates the chastity of the Church's own discourse within its own walls (Sec. 1). (7) As Thiem proposes, the symbolic sexual act suggests the subversive potential of the narrator's confession. Moreover, the creative energy of procreation introduces the subject matter of the first confessional episode (the narrator's birth) and highlights the theme of movement to a new state of being. In this sense, the confessional process both anticipates and facilitates the diasporic voyage.
The representation of the church creates a play between rootedness and movement that draws a connection between physical space and identity. In the narrator's eyes, the church is always changing. For example, sometimes the structure is smaller (59), the carpet becomes paler or a different color (71, 103, 195), the structure burns down (131), is rebuilt (137) and is ultimately rejected (195). For the narrator, this gothic structure is at once inviolable and polymorphous, suggesting that identity itself plays this double role: while the protagonist yearns for a fixed identity, her life is really a series of identifications. Her personification of the church reflects the narrator's changing perspective of herself, and each new description introduces the theme of the confessional episode that moves her forward in her journey of self-discovery.
In addition, as a symbol of Cuba--the narrator notices the many people it shelters every time she enters--the church can also be seen as a representation of the decadence of the larger socio-historical context during the Special Period. While the church provides a physical space for the narrator's confession, its continuous change reminds the reader that this is not only a story about the narrator but also about the nation-state, whose identity fluctuates as well. Near the end of the novel, just as the narrator is leaving for the United States, she visits the site of the church, only to find ruins: what was once a vibrant gathering place is now a cemetery, and only a girl, a bride, and an old woman populate its space (215-16). Three generations of nameless women are left amidst the rubble of the Revolution. As the nation is left to create itself again, the church, like the narrator, experiences a kind of exile. Canetti's reification of identity through the church's physical presence lends another layer to the representation of movement and diaspora.
Once inside the church, the narrator is drawn to the priest as a symbol of authority. Traditionally, the confessor helps the confessant purge his or her sins through the process of confession, penitence, and absolution. Historically, in the production of many vidas, for example, the relationship between a female confessant and a male confessor reflected the gendered nature of power and authority: while the female confessant provided the bulk of the text, the male confessor guided, shaped, and even edited her text. Women's confessional writing, therefore, reflected a certain tension between authorship and authority as each party contributed to the confessional discourse. This tension is often present in twentieth-century confessional writing by women since it easily incorporates patriarchal discourse into the narrative. Leigh Gilmore affirms that confessional discourse privileges male authority in the production of truth: "the maintenance of patriarchal authority and male privilege follow from the formation of rules in confession to the installation of a man as judge" (110). The priest in Canetti's novel represents this tradition, and in transgressing or blurring the boundaries of their confessional relationship, the narrator authorizes her own story and calls into question the role of authoritative discourse.
From the beginning of the novel, the narrator reflects ambivalence about confessing to a priest. She claims that she has found no interlocutor who could help her understand the "other side," and she views her confession in a non-traditional manner: though she feels no guilt for her "sins," she seeks a priest, "tal vez con el miedo de ser perdonada. Tal vez con la esperanza de no ser perdonada" (10). Traditional roles of confessor and confessant are challenged as the narrator views the priest more as a witness to her story than an authority to guide and absolve her. Although Thiem argues that Canetti does not represent confession as a form of control but rather as a textual strategy (Sec. 1), her reading of Al otro lado ignores the presence of the confessor even though he is the named interlocutor, or implied "listener," who influences the development of the narrator's confessional episodes. In fact, the narrator constantly crosses the boundaries between confessor and confessant as she finds herself both drawn to the priest as an authority who can help her and as a man whom she can seduce and control with her narratives of transgression. Therefore, the narrator's careful description of the priest is integral to her project of (de)constructing confession.
Ambivalence about the priest's role in her confession drives the sections in italics where the narrator openly addresses her feelings about him. Symbolically, the priest represents the authority of Castro at the same time he undermines that role. Nelson Valdes argues that the Church influenced many Cuban leaders, including Castro: "Even if the politicians did not accept the political content of the priests' ideology, they internalized the Catholic-Hispanic values.... It is hardly surprising that the Cuban revolutionary leader has noted that 'all the qualities that make a priest are qualities needed in a good revolutionary'" (216). By using a priest and religious discourse, Canetti represents Castro or another official from the Regime without naming him. Importantly, Canetti presents the priest only through the narrator's description, as he never utters more than a few words. (8) This "silencing" of the confessor is replete with meaning. On the one hand, the silent confessor represents the constant presence of the government and its vigilance over citizens' actions. When the narrator confesses to the priest, she seeks his approval and finds herself drawn to him. On the other hand, as an authority denied the power of words, the priest symbolizes an empty figurehead, reflecting the disillusion of the Special Period when Canetti began the novel. Moreover, the name of the priest, Jonathan, suggests an association between authority and North America, the imperialist enemy of revolutionary Cuba, in which case the confessional narrative diffuses revolutionary authority. Therefore, the narrator's interactions with the priest draw attention to confessional discourse as a symbol of power and as a method of encoding irony related to the nation-state, especially in terms of the problematic relationship between identity and "belonging" in revolutionary Cuba.
The priest also serves as a catalyst for the narrator to criticize gendered expectations that constrain women's behavior anal self-perception. By highlighting her own authority, the narrator places the priest in a position where his role becomes complacent and passive, much like gendered expectations for women, For example, the protagonist uses the sections in italics to comment on the priest's beauty and her attraction to him, which stand in contrast to the confessional episodes where she recounts men's objectification of her body. She focuses on specific parts of his body--for example, his eyebrows, nose, or neck--inverting the often-cited "male gaze." (9) This female gaze objectifies the priest and his character becomes a puppet of her desire, which not only highlights the narrator's authority over the text but also her refusal to be objectified and defined by others.
Finally, the priest plays a significant role in the narrator's association between confession and sexuality. The substance of her confessional episodes revolves around sexual experiences, and she observes that the priest enjoys these stories. Her confessions attract him, and transgression becomes an object of his desire:
quiero que el Padre me diga que placer siente en escucharme confesar ... Sin un minimo placer ... no podria el Padre soportar ni una sola de mis palabras de confesion ... !Como se iba a privar de ese ludico placer ...: el dentro de un lugar que ya yo descubri, y yo fuera con algo que el no ha descubierto! (26) (10)
The narrator acknowledges a border between the confessor and confessant that she challenges by drawing him into her narratives; in fact, he crosses to the "other side"--her side. By encouraging her to continue confessing, she implies that the priest is an active participant who seeks her tales of "deviant" behavior. His desire to hear her transgressions makes him into an accomplice in her journey. By sharing her sins with him, she gains power over him and affirms her role as author of the text. In fact, confession itself becomes a kind of sin when the narrator comments: "Me atrae tal vez el deseo de contar a alguien lo que no me be contado bien a mi misma, o el deseo de pecar con mi confesion" (13). Here the narrator suggests two levels of transgression: her actions in the past that violated social norms and her present act of articulating these "sins" as a way to re-appropriate discourse about transgression. The narrator, in fact, converts the priest through the transgression of conventions, not just social but also literary.
Constructing the Confessional Text
In the confessional episodes, Canetti problematizes the concepts of sin and transgression by deconstructing their usage through her confessional discourse. The narrator relates transgression primarily to her refusal to conform to patriarchal gender and sexual roles for women, which the Church has historically upheld, and which were prevalent in revolutionary Cuba. (11) As the narrator constructs the episodes, she creates a confessional text that proposes crossing the boundaries of both society and genre as a way to reshape the subject's relationship with the nation-state.
Several recent studies of contemporary Cuban literature examine the representation of sexuality and eroticism in literature as a way to assert a relationship between the individual body and the State. Sandra Lorenzano affirms that "'No hay ley que no este inscrita en los cuerpos' ... cuanto mayor es el grado de autoritarismo, aumenta tambien el control sobre los cuerpos" (144). For women living in a society that promotes equality while also upholding patriarchal values associated with sexuality, the body is bound to be a site of tension. Canetti's novel shows women transgressing social norms, and controlling their bodies, in an attempt to express agency through sexual activity. This is not uncommon in Cuban women's writing, as Margarite Fernandez Olmos maintains: "encontramos un 'erotismo revolucionario' que reclama un cambio en las normas sexuales de la sociedad cubana y reexamina criticamente la experiencia femenina" (137). (12) Cuban women's erotic texts are doubly revolutionary: they reflect the sexual politics of revolutionary Cuba at the same time that they challenge, and revolutionize, those values.
Canetti reconstructs confession, in which women's sexuality is presented as transgressive, to criticize the double standard women face. She problematizes the political rhetoric of (sexual) equality by emphasizing the mixed messages the young protagonist receives with each of her sexual experiences. We can divide Al otro lado into three sections that reflect the narrator's journey in which she comes to understand the link between sexuality and identity: the narrator's childhood and early adolescence, when she first begins to understand her sexuality; her college years and incarceration, when her sexuality is questioned by authorities; and the period following her incarceration, when she engages in sexual experimentation. Though each of her confessional episodes is couched as a transgression, she deconstructs confession's conventional rhetoric of guilt as a way to gain agency and authority. In this way, the episodes represent the narrator's progression away from the socialized narratives that have defined women to a new space of subjectivity.
The narrator begins her confessional episodes with her birth, and quickly moves into the theme of sexual prohibitions. In the third chapter entitled "Placer," the woman confesses that even before she was three, she would masturbate against the railings of her crib, but her parents discouraged the behavior. This is the first moment that she feels tension and contradiction surrounding her inner and outer selves: her pleasure is life-affirming, yet it is also prohibited. In response, she begins to split her identity into public and private selves and to create boundaries between these selves, thus showing how a rhetoric of transgression and guilt take root early in a woman's life. In fact, the young girl must exile a certain part of herself in order to be accepted in a society where she cannot participate fully as herself, thus creating a movement between boundaries that carries through her life. Nelly Richard proposes that a physical mediator between the needs and desires of the individual and those of society is the body: "El cuerpo es el 'lugar de cruce entre lo individual (biografia e inconsciente) y lo colectivo (programacion de los roles de identidad segun normas de disciplinamiento social)'" (qtd. in Lorenzano 143). It is logical, therefore, for a woman to address contradictory expectations about her behavior by focusing on her erotic body through which she can contest and re-cast gendered expectations. In transgressing these limitations, women politicize sexuality and draw attention to these imposed boundaries. Subsequent confessional episodes--her first crush, menstruation, sexual touching--all highlight the tension she feels as she moves between the borders of self and society.
After the young protagonist learns that she must focus her (sexual) attention on men, she has a series of encounters where men pressure her into sexual activity, and she learns to read socialized narratives in order to play her role as woman. For example, when her first boyfriend, Romeo, convinces her to have sex, she is prepared to follow Shakespeare's narrative of passionate and pure love. (13) However, her dream is soon shattered by the reality of her vulnerable body being held down and attacked by what she perceives as a warrior (Romeo). The narrator recalls the pain of the silence surrounding her first sexual experience:
Mi novio (el primero) me miraba casi furioso, y mi cuerpo obediente fue acuchillado una y otra vez, deshojado, mutilado, mordido y, finalmente dominado y vencido. El silencio se quebro en mil pedazos como mi grito, pero la sangre no llovio ... El no dejo de mirarme ... Y sentencio:
--?Quien estuvo antes? (65)
Neither Romeo nor the narrator's hymen follow their scripts: her story of perfect love is shattered as Romeo turns into an attacker, and because she does not bleed, his promises of eternal love are discarded. She feels a disconnect with her body and laments, "Senti un gran dolor y luego una gran culpa por no saber sangrar ... Solo gotas ... de culpa desconocida ... Yo tenia la culpa en todo el cuerpo: por lo que hice y por lo que no hice" (65-6). She did not realize that her identity was so dependent on her body, which becomes a source of guilt and which could not act on her behalf. She could not speak and, even when she screamed with pain, Romeo ignored her voice in order to focus on her body as the site of transgression. The narrator's first experience of intercourse creates confessional angst as feelings of shame and guilt dominate her.
Canetti, however, deconstructs conventional narratives of female behavior through the protagonist's disillusionment and parody. After acknowledging the guilt arising from Romeo's double standards, the narrator appropriates transgression when she approaches Romeo and insists, '"Ni te creas que fuiste el primero'" (66). As readers, we know that she lies to him, since she has affirmed her virginity in the confession to the priest. Therefore, she embraces the role of the transgressor as a way to find freedom from patriarchal expectations and to highlight the performative function of language: she plays the role of whore in order to escape society's restricting narrative of "pure" love. In the end, she mocks the script of the innocent virgin: the same lack of blood that caused her guilt now frees her. Her original confessional tone changes to an affirmation of personal agency as she realizes that when transgression loses its power to generate guilt, it can be empowering. She learns how to be the author of her own life, both recasting and rewriting narratives of womanhood.
Canetti creates a text that experiments not only with sexual but also textual bodies in a way that transgresses literary borders. Lorenzano suggests that the literary representation of a woman's erotic body is another way of questioning authority: "La experimentacion sobre el propio cuerpo es tambien experimentacion sobre la escritura; ambas instancias funcionan como respuesta 'decentrada,' marginal" (156). If conventional confessional discourse places the confessing woman as dependent on the male confessor, Canetti challenges the boundaries of confession in order to redefine the role of the confessantt, primarily through the theme of eroticism. Catherine Davies contends that "women's appropriation of erotic writing is a form of empowerment and literary emancipation, a way of shocking a compliant audience" (212). Both shock and emancipation factor prominently as the narrator's literary confession crosses over into the accusatory genre of testimonio. (14)
In the second set of confessional episodes, Canetti makes the most concrete references to Cuban politics, directly criticizing the Regime's unfair detention and incarceration of its citizens based on dubious transgressions. The entire section, from the protagonist's arrest to her second prison stay is reminiscent of testimonio: she recounts the horrors of her arrest and unjust imprisonment with details that demand a criticism of the offending authorities. (15) Testimonio is often distinguished from confession by its rhetorical focus on accusation versus confession's rhetoric of guilt and apologia. Canetti's text questions these boundaries as the narrator continues to explore the meaning of transgression through movement between both genres.
In this section, transgression is directly linked to the revolutionary government. When the narrator is arrested, the police refer to her parents as good revolutionary citizens; later, she ironically states that "la justicia era ciega ... mucho mas la justicia revolucionaria. Esa no ve ni lo que esta delante de sus ojos" (97). As Ian Lumsden argues, many Cubans were arrested on "flimsy grounds" in order to suppress any behavior that was considered different from revolutionary norms: "Cuban leaders could not tolerate any form of opposition, even if it was merely implicit rather than overtly counterrevolutionary. The need to 'contain any form of deviance among youth' would be declared an integral part of the commitment 'to preserve the monolithic ideological unity' of the Cuban people" (72). This ideological unity refers to the virile revolutionary "new man," thus rendering transgressive many female and homosexual perspectives and experiences. (16) By describing not only her sexual experiences but also the discrimination she faced, the narrator's confession turned testimonio reconfigures the Regime's relationship to transgression.
The narrator's most serious crime, according to the authorities, is her sexual freedom. Through her narration, the protagonist highlights how various authorities manipulate the rhetoric of sexual transgression in order to justify abuses of power. Male authorities play upon traditional attitudes towards female sexuality to justify abusing and even raping the narrator on several occasions. For example, when the police raid the protagonist's home and start rifling through her underwear, making lewd comments, one dismisses her anger:
--Oyeme hien jovencita--me agarro por el cuello--.Yo entro donde me da la gana y bago lo que me da la gana con delincuentes como tu. ?Esta claro?--las lagrimas de mi impotencia saltaron como si fueran a escupido--.Y te digo algo mas, mujercita, yo se de que se te acusa, a mi si que no me enganas porque yo be visto muchas catitas como la tuya que se las pintan de santas despues que se han revolcado con machos por ahi y que han hecho todo tipo de cochinadas ... Me quede quieta, quietecita. Solo de escuchar que alguien sabia algo que yo debia saber y que no sabia, me aterraba y me esclavizaba al miedo mas feroz. (81-82)
The narrator's "confession" of this scene converts it into a testimony about the interaction between power and gender. The woman is silenced and terrorized for being sexually deviant when, in fact, it is the policeman fingering her underwear who is using sexual desire to obtain power. By lumping her with loose women, he robs her of subjectivity and, instead, locates her within a patriarchal narrative that views sexual women as transgressive objects for consumption. Later, that narrative is fully realized when she is raped by the jail "doctor." This loss of subjectivity is not regained until her present confession with the priest in which she articulates her version of the story; consequently, she re-appropriates narrative control and transgression is shifted to the authorities: "Padre, he callado esto durante mucho tiempo. Siento que algo grande y pesado se cae de mi espalda" (90). She uses her confession to denounce the crimes of State officials and assert her own innocence.
The power of confession, in which authority and authorship are so closely related, emerges from the confessant's ability to play one patriarchal structure (the Church) against another (the State). In "Policing Truth," Gilmore argues that the production of truth is relational in a confessional relationship, requiring the woman to "self-police" by weighing her own perspective against that which is expected of her by authorities, as represented by the confessor (112). Canetti, on the other hand, modifies the confessional relationship to one in which the confessant-narrator uses the confessor as a way to police authorities.
As the narrator recounts her experiences to the priest, she inverts traditional power structures and authorizes her truth as bearing witness to the false truths of officials. Moreover, her confession emphasizes her right to speak for herself. In the past, right before her arrest, Caligula admonishes the narrator to be quiet, saying "Tu no sabes nada" (76). He imposes ignorance on her--though in fact she doesn't know anything--converting her silence into a crime. She loses her right simply to be innocent. The police insist that she knows something and force her to speak, even though she has nothing to say. The narrator is caught between two authorities that try to control her communication. Speaking to the priest, she makes an important distinction between then (her arrest) and now (her confessional episode), saying:
Padre, yo nunca supe nada de nada hasta el dia de hoy, hasta ahora ... y ahora no tengo que confesar. Solo esto: no sabia nada de nada. ?Se da cuenta, Padre, se da cuenta que hasta me mutilaron la confesion, que hasta me quitaron el derecho de expiar mi pecado, el pecado de no saber algo ...? (76)
Both Caligula's silencing and the police's forced confession stole her ability to represent herself "Lo peor era aquel papel ... en el que confesaba ser culpable de no saber nada ... y que el Capitan Torquemada se encargo de completar luego, para rellenar el espacio que quedaba en blanco entre mi declaracion y mi firma" (99). Caligula and the police controlled her legal confession, and only now, in a different confession, is the protagonist able to affirm her freedom and right to speak for herself by forcing an authority to bear witness to her abuse. Since the priest in part symbolizes the Regime, this confession challenges the State to recognize its own role in oppression.
By constructing this confession as a testimonial narrative of oppression, Canetti questions the eonventions of confessional discourse as an admission of guilt, thus blurring, or transgressing, borders of genre. Most important is the stark contrast the narrator makes between her legal and "religious" confession. First, the police confession is forced, whereas the narrator chooses to confess to the priest. Second, the Captam mediates her legal confession fully, even to the point of writing some of it for her. With the largely silent priest, we see very little mediation; in fact, the priest appears unable to alter any of her words, which highlights the narrator's authority to record and define her experiences. Finally, the concept of transgression is framed differently in each confession: with the police, the narrator claims to be both ignorant and innocent, even though she is treated as if she were guilty. In the confessional episodes with the priest, she consciously recounts her sexual "sins," showing a movement from expressing guilt to affirming the importance of her transgressions. Through these two different confessions, the narrator empties words such as "guilt," "sin," and "truth" of the unquestioned meaning they carry. Moreover, her literary confession is not used for oppression but rather for liberation from institutional authority. In this way, Canetti proposes confession as an alternative to official state-sponsored discourse.
Canetti's play between confessional and testimonial discourses crosses a border that Susannah Radstone distinguishes as the difference between intra-subjectivity and inter-subjectivity (175). For Radstone, the confessing subject is more concerned with the problematic task of "complete self-knowledge" while the testimonial subject is more concerned with communicating his or her experiences (175). Whereas the narrator of Al otro lado proclaims her confessional project overtly, she clearly crosses over into the realm of testimony during the confessional episodes in which she seeks to articulate the abuses she suffered in silence. By transgressing the conventions of confession, the narrator's testimony challenges the priest, and the reader, to see her differently:
testimony represents the 'turning inside out' of the confessional self so that the trouble which resided within and even constituted the subject is now deemed to be positioned outside the self. This is a fascinating shift which arguably 'cleanses' the testimonial subject of all sin at the expense of history or perpetration. (Radstone 176)
The narrator deftly turns the narrative away from how she is identified--through her sexual sins and therefore "immoral" behavior--and positions the government as perpetrator. In this way, she turns confession "inside-out," another journey to the "other side," as the book's title suggests, where she is not constrained by conventions. Her travels across literary borders propose a relationship between subjectivity and social activism, and a movement outward from the confining borders of traditional confession.
From Ecstasy to Absolution
After her incarcerations, the narrator begins to see her body in a different light in which eroticism becomes a tool for self-discovery and absolution. Ironically, the narrator decides to take part in many of the transgressive acts of which she had been accused but had not actually done in the past. Although she continues to confess to the priest, her tone shifts as she leaves her homeland and sheds her need for confession. Through the descriptions of her sexual encounters, the protagonist uses ecstasy as a way to articulate personal agency and belonging, and, ultimately, as a source of absolution.
The narrator's erotic explorations begin with an orgy, which teaches her to view her body as a source of power. In this ecstatic act, she fully rejects society's rules and her transgression transforms into a journey of self-acceptance. At the end of the orgy, after she was able to lose herself in communal pleasure, she discovers her vagina: "Descubri una herida abierta en medio de mi cuerpo que todavia soltaba lava. La herida siempre estuvo ... abierta. ?Y yo, donde habia estado todo este tiempo?" (143). (17) Although she describes her vagina, the center of female sexuality, as a wound, symbolic of the violence she had experienced in the past, the orgy turns her attention inward, and transforms her body's transgressive lava into the powerful lifeblood of female subjectivity. In fact, later, as she articulates her own absolution, she also absolves all women from the guilt associated with gender: "Yo me perdono de carecer de culpa (mas no me culpo). La culpa, vulva que no cierra, no tiene la menor culpa de que la culpen por un pecado que no cometio" (250). By representing guilt as an open vulva, the narrator emphasizes the unjust relationship between female sexuality anal sin. Her new corporeal subjectivity affirms the essential role of a woman's body as part of her identity anda source flowing strength that defies masculinist discourse.
The narrator recasts transgression as a relative term that mediates relationships of power. In a regime where patriarchal sexual norms are cloaked by a rhetoric of patriotism and justice, she consciously uses her sexual body to challenge and reconstruct social relationships. With each relationship, the narrator challenges the definitions of acceptable behavior that are so closely tied to revolutionary ideals. For example, she seduces two men, Castor and Polux, only to convince them of their latent homoeroticism. In another confessional episode, she is seduced by the gender bending Antonio/Catalina de Erauso whom the narrator baptizes, thus authorizing another story that would have been suppressed from official history. The narrator's erotic acts allow her to see herself beyond the identifications that had made her feel sinful: "Hice el amor una y otra vez, Padre ... Y no solo con hombres y mujeres, tambien con los arboles y las olas del mar y con los rabos de nube y con la lluvia. He fundado naciones de esperma y he ovulado hasta secarme ... No tuve miedo de tocar en cada puerta para encontrarme a mi, del otro lado, abriendome e invitandome a pasar" (187-8). By embracing transgression, in the sense of moving over boundaries, the narrator uses her sexuality to assert her own agency. Through her sexual travels, she creates a narrative that is mapped on her body, founding nations that defy politics and borders, as she becomes a (sexual) citizen of the world.
In fact, the narrator turns to confessional discourse to question diaspora directly. Shortly before her departure from Cuba, the narrator recounts her family's history of transnational movement. She sees her family as fallen tree, without roots or limbs, and she wonders if it is a sin:
Mi pecado es no estar en ningun lugar, no pertenecer a ninguna nacion y sentir que por mis venas corre, promiscua y arrollante, sangre de muchos lugares. Y que ... me siento bien asi ... perteneciendo a muchos ovulos profanados por siglos de semen. Quizas todos seamos parte de las venas de varios continentes ... Y eso es pecado, ?no? (199) (18)
Again the sexual, promiscuous body represents the ability to resist and transgress the borders of nation. The conventional metaphor of a tree as representing the stability of family through nation-state discourse is so powerful that the narrator feels transgressive when she sees herself as rootless. The confessional process reflects the struggle and ambivalence of individuals whose life narratives do not conform to dominant metaphors of belonging. Instead, the narrator ends the episode with the image of a seed that is scattered by a storm: she affirms diaspora as her inheritance, and transgression, through this scattering of seeds, as a re-birth and source of life. (19) It is at this juncture where she addresses geographic diaspora directly that she draws her confession with the priest to a close.
Right before she leaves the island, one of the narrator's most transgressive acts is the seduction of the priest, which liberates her not only from society's constraints but also from the boundaries of confession. Until this act, the priest has clearly been resisting his attraction to her. Finally, she challenges him to leave behind society's conventions and love an imperfect woman: "?Quiere aceptarme, Padre? ?Quiere aceptar a esta mujer despeinada y fea que se come las unas y pega los mocos debajo del asiento ...? [...] ?Quiere amar a una mujer que ha hecho tantas veces el amor, que no es virgen ni diosa? ... ?Quiere amar a esta antimujer?" (210). She affirms her transgressive identity as an "anti-woman," liberated from gendered expectations, an alternative to the eternal feminine, in which women freely express themselves. The narrator attains the priest's love--symbolized by their millennial and ecstatic embrace at their last confessional encounter (213)--instead of seeking his absolution. Thus, she intemalizes the masculine, without succumbing to it. By consuming the priest, and crossing the boundary of "temptation," as the chapter is entitled, she confirms the life-affirming role of transgression: "Existir viva es pecar. Y hasta no querer pecar es pecar ... Y hasta privar a los demas de su legitimo derecho de pecar es pecar. Y sin pecar, ?que seriamos?" (249). The narrator's confession has freed her from institutional and societal expectations, and her final act on the island is to transgress the boundaries of nation. In the last chapter with italics, as she faces the priest's tombstone, the narrator links both priest and nation: "Adios imagen prohibida y real. Adios, mi hermoso sacerdote, Descansa en mi. Adios, mi isla" (216). The narrator's strong attraction to the priest, both prohibited and real, also describes her relationship to Cuba. She internalizes the priest and the island only to free herself from their constraints.
In the final chapter of the book, "El perdon," the narrator finally concludes the confessional process through absolution. Now in Manhattan, another island, she is faced one last time with the possibility of finding herself, now on the "other side" through confession. She is in her apartment, questioning the existence of God, when a telephone repairman (like the priest, named Jonathan) appears. Her instinct is to confess: "?Y si vino a confesarme?" (239) Jonathan even declares that he has come so she can "communicate again"; however, as she falls into confessional discourse, she suddenly snaps and insists that he leave her house. She does not allow herself to become the object of another's gaze; instead, she looks into a mirror, which serves as a catalyst for self-confession. (20) She addresses herself, highlighting the fact that there is no mediation by a priest or anyone else, as a way to find absolution.
The narrator's experiences with Caligula and the court system showed her the potential emptiness of absolution, The words lost meaning for the narrator, who saw them as a useless show of power. The first time she is absolved by someone, Caligula whispers that be forgives her: "'Te perdono,' le oi decir, 'yo se que eres inocente.' Fue el unico momento, Padre, en que me senti rotundamente culpable ... No comprendia por que me perdonaba y por que me tenia que decir que yo era inocente si el sabia que yo era inocente" (98). Caligula's absolution serves to steal her innocence through its unnecessary articulation. An innocent person has no need to be pardoned; therefore, Caligula's absolution has the effect of incriminating her. He uses the power of absolution both to speak for her and to maintain control over her. Likewise, when the court declares her innocent, based on the stories her lawyer creates, the narrator also feels the emptiness of absolution: "hubiera preferido que me creyeran y no que me absolvieran" (100). In fact, even after she is proven innocent in court, police arrest her again and throw her in jail. The court's absolution represents empty words since its authority is proven worthless. The narrator rejects these absolutions because they denied her the right to locate herself outside of their discourse. Instead, the narrator reformulates the rhetoric of absolution for herself.
Over the course of the novel, the narrator participates in confessional discourse in order to question and modify notions of transgressive behavior. In the last chapter, this involves facing her desire to feel unified. Throughout her long confession she has lamented her empty, fragmented, and wandering selves. Some were reflections of literary characters, others the masks she presented to fulfill other people's expectations, and finally her alter-ego, the woman who lives "on the other side" of her. However, through her self-confession in front of the mirror, the narrator embraces the many selves that affirm her existence and ability to transform (another "movement across"). First, she takes possession of herself: "Tengo que sacar a mi imagen del espejo y metermela dentro. No le pertenece al espejo. Me pertenece a mi" (247). By claiming her image, she affirms that she is no longer the object of someone else's gaze (or desire). Next, the narrator finds solace in dialogue with herself, knowing that she does not need anyone else to fulfill her. Finally, the narrator describes the ecstasy she feels as she crosses the borders of the Self:
Beso a la mujer que esta del otro lado y ella me besa con pasion como si nunca hubiera besado a ningun ser humano tan real como yo. Las dos, mi imagen y yo, empezamos a existir en otra dimension ... Nos cambiamos de sitio varias veces sin separar nuestros labios y, vibrando en el entrar y en el salir, nos metemos las dos en un solo cuerpo ... (248) (21)
Just as she has modified the conventions of confession, the narrator finds union in a moment of auto-erotic ecstasy: she alone penetrates herself in a moment of sublime unity. (22) This act is finally when she is able to accept herself, or her-selves, in constant state of flux, unsure of the answers but living in an ever-changing present: "Tengo que aprender a andar con lo que soy ... como yo soy el espejo de las otras yo que se reflejan en mi ... que somos yo, yo y yo. O lo que es lo mismo: tu, tu y tu" (250). She moves beyond the boundaries of self-representation to a (linguistic) diasporic space where the limits of language are blurred--subject pronouns are interchangeable--and where movement and change are a powerful counter-discourse to the borders that contain us; after all, we the readers are also implicated in the "tu" that is also the "yo."
The final transgression in the novel is the narrator's self-absolution, which not only clears her guilt but also definitively asserts her authority over the confessional text. She modifies the official language of absolution:
yo me perdono de lo que me pueda condenar. Me perdono de todo lo que me acuse y me acusaron alguna vez ... Y quedo exonerada hasta tanto no reduzca mi humanidad al plano de lo inhumano--que podria ser divino, propongo. En el nombre de mi corta existencia, de mi larga muerte y en mi propio nombre desconocido. Amen. (250-51).
The narrator inverts traditional absolution, which seeks to pardon earthly desire in favor of spiritual purity, a task she admits is inhuman. By appropriating and changing the well-known words of the final blessing, the narrator places herself in the role of the trinity. This re-scripting of absolution locates the female protagonist at the center of one of the most patriarchal traditions, in which the performativity of absolution serves to legitimize the transgression of norms. As author and authority, she claims the right to live beyond the constraints of others' identifications and, instead, attains subjectivity, ironically, through a refusal to be named.
One the of the cornerstones of first-person writing and self-representation--and I refer especially of Philip LeJeune's autobiographical pact--naming oneself can be seen as an essential aspect of subjectivity. In the case of Al otro lado, the narrator moves beyond even the fixity of a name and instead looks to her sexual body, with its changing needs and desires, and its pleasure, as the true marker of existence. Sexuality becomes a symbol of freedom and, in the context of the late twentieth-century, a physical and emotional space that is in perpetual movement, a source of identity that teases and blurs borders. Ironically, this loss of a unified Self through erotic union takes on a secularized mystical discourse that is consistent with Canetti's confessional project by both evoking religious discourse and violating its conventions. The end result of the confession is her articulation of personal agency and authorship through the transgression of sacred texts and of confession itself.
Over the course of her confession, the narrator transforms from humble confessant into creator of her own destiny through a play with borders. The title's reference to the "other side" prefigures Canetti's purposeful questioning of boundaries and the role of authority in determining the identifications that shape people's lives. In Al otro lado, Canetti uses confessional discourse to reconfigure authority and expose the role transgression plays as a catalyst for movement, both literal and figurative. The narrator enacts the performative articulation of absolution, not to absolve herself from sin, but rather to assert her right not to be defined: she rejects language that seeks absolute truths, like the discourse of the Church, the Nation, or even the Self that do not serve the needs of the postmodern, diasporic subject.
Through the transgression of various institutionalized discourses, the narrator controls her own narrative and proposes diaspora as a space of true freedom. Canetti empties the signifier "Cuba" by refusing to name the country. Furthermore, she transgresses the many boundaries of the Revolution through her association of the Church and State and the narrator's sexual experimentation. By framing the church and priest completely within a female gaze, Canetti challenges traditional patriarchal authority. In addition, the eventual disappearance of the monolithic church places it in a kind of diasporic movement that symbolically de-centers the power of the nation-state. Confession, therefore, plays an important role in not only crossing the abstract borders of authority bur also the geographical borders that, although invented in terms of imagined communities, are often evoked as unquestioned markers of identity. Canetti's confessional novel challenges its readers to reconsider the relationship between identity and diaspora, highlighting differing forms of movement, or transgression, as the common denominator over the discourse of nation.
Finally, Canetti proposes literature as a space of diaspora through movement across literary boundaries. She shifts the role of confessional discourse from an admission of guilt to a profession of freedom by recasting the concept of transgression. Confession also becomes a tool for denouncing injustice, thus crossing into the genre of testimonio. Most importantly, Canetti highlights confessional discourse, with its emphasis on transgression, as paradigmatic of the diasporic condition: as people constantly transgress borders, they redefine the conventions of the past--even those concerning confession itself.
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(1) Yanitzia Canetti was born in Cuba in 1967 and came to the United States in 1991 during the Special Period. She began Al otro lado in Cuba but completed the novel after leaving the country.
(2) I have borrowed the terms "identity" and "identifications" in this context from James Clifford's observation (after reading Paul Gilroy) that diasporic communities are united not by an unchanging relationship to a common set of cultural markers (identity), but rather through a "tradition" of identifications: "Identifications not identities, acts of relationship rather than pregiven forms: this tradition is a network of partially connected histories, a persistently displaced and reinvented time/space of crossings" (268). I employ "identifications" to indicate a subject's continually changing relationship to cultural narratives of belonging in which his or her "crossings" are not limited to the borders of nation but may include other borders between the self and society.
(3) See Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality as the foundational text that associates confession, sex, and power,
(4) Early modern colonial vidas followed a format first developed by Saint Teresa of Avila in the sixteenth century. Often these narratives recounted a nun's early life, conversion story, and mystical experiences, among other things, following certain structural and rhetorical conventions that were acceptable for women. While it is beyond the scope of this study to examine these texts in detail, this rich history lays the foundation for modem women's confessional discourse in Latin America. For further reading on vidas, see Arenal and Schlau, Ibsen, Myers, Slade, and Weber.
(5) In his discussion about historical memory in Cuba, Rafael Rojas highlights first-person writing by Cuban exiles as a new phenomenon from the 1990s that examines politics and identity through a "moral objective," such as confession (238). However, Rojas focuses on a confessional rhetoric of guilt and apology that centers on complicity with the revolutionary government.
(6) To maintain the differences between the two sections of each chapter, I will keep any citations from the text that appear in italics italicized and will refer to those sections as such. The sections in regular print will be referred to as confessional episodes. When I speak of the narrator's "confession" in the singular, I mean the entire novel as one confession, in contrast to the "confessional episodes" that she articulates to the priest.
(7) Canetti's narrator first describes the church as "una arquitectura hermafrodita, donde un roseton inmenso y abundante en petalos se abre entre las piernas de una iglesia masculina, que mas que elevacion suprema y espiritual, es un prominente cuerpo falico proyectado al cielo" (10).
(8) The priest is largely silent except for a few short phrases that are usually related to common priestly responses, such as "!Que Dios este siempre contigo, hija!" (59). Rarely does he stray from religious rhetoric, but there are a couple of brief examples like in the chapter, "El arbol caido," where he talks about his mother in a few sentences (195-96).
(9) I refer to Mulvey's examination of the objectification of women through the "lens" of the "male gaze."
(10) Except as noted in footnote 18, all ellipses are mine.
(11) In revolutionary Cuba, changing gender roles and attitudes about sex have caused confusion regarding socially acceptable behavior for women. In 1960 Castro appointed Vilma Espin as the director of the Federacion de Mujeres Cubanas as a way to integrate women into revolutionary society. The Federation brought about many changes in education, healthcare and childcare for women, In addition, the Family Code of 1975 guaranteed equal rights and responsibilities for both partners in a family. However, several studies have noted the inefficiency of both the Federation and the Code, noting that patriarchy and sexism continue to characterize both the government and Cuban society. Many attribute the disconnect to the masculinist rhetoric surrounding the revolutionary ideal of the "new man." See Holgado Fernandez, Lutjens, Molyneux, Shayne, and Smith and Padula.
(12) Similarly, Davies explains that after the late 80's in Cuba a "new" eroticism appeared: "What is new is ... the self-portrayal of women as dominant, active, even aggressive agents of the sexual act, and political dissent couched in sexual terms" (212).
(13) It should be noted that, except for Jonathan the priest, all other characters are named according to historical, mythical, or literary characters. In the case of the narrator, her name continuously changes, based on characteristics of her relationship in that chapter. An examination of this use of intertextuality is not within the purview of this article, but warrants further study.
(14) Historically, testimonial writing in Latin America has been identified as a narrative recounted by a witness in first-person that relates the traumatic abuses suffered by a group of people, usually at the hands of an unjust government or institution. The testimonial text serves as an accusation against the abuse and may call for some kind of political action. Ironically, revolutionary Cuba, and especially the Casa de las Americas, is often credited with the birth and growth of twentieth-century testimonio as a Latin American phenomenon. For a thorough discussion of the history of testimonio in Latin America, see Beverley and Nance.
(15) Camara also includes a brief reference to this testimonial section that criticizes Castro's regime: "no falta un contenido testimonial que permite identificar un momento de la confesion con la historia real o al menos verosimil de una joven que sufrio prision en Cuba por actitud de desacato a la rigidez de la moral socialista. La carcel ... no es un mero simbolo de la represion que la sociedad impone a la libido femenina, sino mucho mas concretamente la descripcion de un mecanismo de control real utilizado por el Estado cubano" (119).
(16) Canetti explicitly raises questions about the Regime's treatment of homosexuality: The police ask the narrator's opinion about homosexuality in order to gauge her allegiance to the State. When she does not find homosexuality transgressive, they accuse her of being "una de ellos," and eventually "una maldita espia del imperialismo" (86-87).
(17) Thiem also refers to this scene as a form of ecstasy and part of Canetti's mystical discourse (Sec. V).
(18) The first ellipsis in this quote is the auhor's; the second is mine.
(19) Ironically, right after the narrator leaves the island, she experiences a metaphorical death. The process of leaving is not romanticized but rather reflects a difficult transition to a new life.
(20) For an in-depth study of how Spanish women have used mirrors in novels of self-reflection and self-representation, see Schumm.
(21) I would like to thank Marc Mastrangelo for drawing a connection between the scene of the mirror and the myth of Narcissus. Although I have not examined Canetti's use of mythology as an intertext in this essay, it is worth noting that, once again she crosses boundaries by suggesting that the woman gains a productive subjectivity through loving her image. Instead of falling victim to her gaze, as Narcissus is unable to escape his own self-love, the narrator uses her newfound ability to love herself as a springboard to self-knowledge and re-birth.
(22) My reading of the end is clearly a secular usage of mystical discourse. Thiem also refers to the blasphemy of the narrator's ecstatic experience with Christ in the chapter "La unica tentacion," but ultimately finds it acceptable because of the work's objective to unite body and spirit (Sec. VI). Later she argues that the novel is not mystical, but rather a deconstruction of mystical discourse in order to privilege the earthly over the divine.
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