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Colonialism Past and Present: Reading and Writing about Colonial Latin America Today.

Colonialism Past and Present: Reading and Writing about Colonial Latin America Today. Ed. by ALVARO FELIX BOLANOS and GUSTAVO VERDESIO. Albany: State University of New York Press. 2002. viii+300 pp. 2002. $27.95. ISBN 0-7914-5146-1.

In 1969 Georges Perec published La Disparition, a novel written entirely without the use of the letter 'e'. The absent letter forms part of the novel's plot; the reader's realization that the letter is missing is part of the process of understanding the work. In this edited collection by Alvaro Felix Bolanos and Gustavo Verdesio, the missing item is not a letter but a discipline. History (as opposed to literary criticism, anthropology, etc.) hovers as a ghostly absence throughout the volume until the final chapter, in which Sara Castro-Klaren calls clearly for a return to history, to 'the fullness of experience' (p. 265). Only then does it become fully evident that this volume is not so much about colonial Latin American studies as about colonial literary studies. The book's main argument is that research into colonial texts must be informed not only by a knowledge of literature, but also by an understanding of the historical context (the oppressive historical context, the book's editors would add) in which such works were produced. The eleven chapters that comprise the volume are efforts at situating various texts within some broader historical context. In this they are partially successful. At best, individual contributors provide insightful readings of individual colonial texts; Jose Rabasa, for example, offers an interesting, if speculative, reading of the Codex Mendoza. Alvaro Felix Bolanos similarly provides a satisfying analysis of the depictions of Indians in Juan Rodriguez Freile's sixteenth-century chronicle. At worst, they laboriously reconstructhistorical contexts that have long been understood by historians, or confine themselves to criticizing the inaccuracies of previous writers' interpretations of the past. Mariselle Melendez, for example, discusses the 'incipient nationalism' of the Mercurio Peruano without once making reference either to the concept of creole patriotism or to the many historical works that have elucidated the workings of this ideology.

The realization that history is the missing Other changes one's reading of the book, as its ostensible topic is the continuing colonial legacies still palpable in contemporary Latin America. Exploring these links, the editors suggest, should be a central element of colonial Latin American studies. The real focus of the book is Spanish America rather than Latin America and, in the opening chapters, which survey the field of Spanish American literary and cultural colonial studies, the authors report finding few works that attend to these continuities, and far too many uncritical celebrations of colonialism. The editors quickly stake out the moral high ground: 'there are no third spaces or third ways in the study of the colonial past: one either embraces the winners' (the European's or criollo's) world view or sides with the subjects that still live in sub-alternity' (p. 12). Given the importance the editors ascribe to the continuities between the 'criollo national project' (p. 10) and contemporary patterns of domination in the region, it is a pity that the book's contributors did not pay more sustained attention to the evolution of creole patriotism into state nationalism in the post-independence era. For example, is it really satisfactory simply to say, as Melendez does in her chapter, that creole elites used the Mercurio Peruano to control women in the same fashion as 'institutions dominated by male authorities such as the government' do in today's Peru (p. 187)? Similarly, what does it mean to speak of the colonial 'national subject' (p. 264)? Surely this phrase requires some unpacking? What precisely was the 'colonial nation'?

The book's other chapters survey a variety of topics. Cora Lagos suggests that the images in the Codex Mendoza constitute whispered criticisms of colonial oppression, although the evidence provided for this plausible suggestion is slight. (Incidentally, the various contributors disagree on whether the sixteenth-century Codex Mendoza is a 'Pre-Columbian text' (p. 39) or a colonial one (e.g. p. 54).) Luis Fernandez-Restrepo provides an engaging account of the uses made of the figure of Diego de Torres. Anthony Higgins attempts to reinsert the concept of the sublime into our readings of Baroque poetry. Stacey Schlau argues that the Inquisition's prosecution of two Mexican women reveals its 'rigidly stereotypical notions about women' (p. 171), in an interesting chapter marred by a somewhat over-dramatic view of the Catholic Church's actual power and authority. For example, while in theory all inhabitants of New Spain 'lived under the direction of a confessor' (p. 154), a brief examination of the ratio between priests and the general population makes it plain that in practice the situation was quite different. Jose Antonio Mazzotti notes the exclusion of blacks from colonial epic poetry, and Gustavo Verdesio offers a highly critical reading of the novels of Abel Posse and Juan Jose Saer, whose work he characterizes as 'historically irresponsible' (p. 243).

The volume is enlivened by a series of 'Spanishisms': 'ignore' to mean 'do not know' (pp. 55, 61), 'brakes' to mean 'reins' (199), 'tilled' to mean 'worked' (describing a shirt, p. 210), etc. These quirks could presumably have been ironed out by more assiduous copy-editing at the State University of New York Press. Overall, the book makes gratifying reading for historians, as the centrality of historical research to the study of colonial Spanish America emerges as a key theme. It will make less comfortable reading for literary scholars, many of whose works are implicitly (or explicitly) criticized for perpetuating the conditions of colonialism the book's editors find so offensive in the texts they study. Spanish American colonial studies, they proclaim, is ripe for decolonialization.


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Author:Earle, Rebecca
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2004
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