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Dialectical geographies in contemporary Chilean literature: the case of Diamela Eltit's narrative production.

WITHOUT a doubt, spatial representations are as multifarious as life itself. From the seemingly real depictions of space in texts such as Alvar Nunez's Naufragios and Bernal Diaz's Historia verdadera, (1) to more imaginary representations of space such as Cadalso's Cartas, Celine's Voyage and Carpentier's Los pasos perdidos, or even litero-ethno-sociological portrayals of the likes of Carrio de la Vandera's Lazarillo or Claude Levi-Strauss's ethnographic Tristes Tropiques as well as the purely literary journeys of critics such as Guy Davenport's brilliant The Geography of the Imagination, it would appear as if space's fate, of necessity, is to be the victim of representation and even theorization (think of Blanchot, Lefebvre or Jameson, for instance). It would appear, moreover, that engravings in general, followed by the first photograph and especially the public introduction of photography in 1839, (2) immensely enriched the possibilities of spatial representation, directly or indirectly enabling, in the case of Latin America, the creation of the deliciously intimate geographies of the modernist novel (De sobremesa, Amistad funesta) as well as the wide-open locales of texts bent on inscribing the nation (La voragine, Dona Barbara), as Carlos Alonso has noted regarding the so-called "novelas de la tierra." Now, if in narrative representation in general space perennially oscillates between what could be called an outside and an inside, one might safely argue that Chilean novelist Diamela Eltit privileges enclosed settings. (3) At the same time, it could be said that, to a large extent--and leaving aside the well-known themes of her works--, (4) she confects an aesthetics of space. What I wish to analyze here is the way in which, in this aesthetics of space, even in the most claustrophobic of terrains, and as paradoxical as it may seem at first, there is a constant tension between the inside and the outside, the local and the global, the national and the transnational. The tension present in her first novels, nevertheless, starts to dissipate in Mano de obra (2002), being mercilessly overtaken in Impuesto a la carne (2010)--her most recent novel--by a neoliberal Biopower too strong to combat. If in Pedro Lemebel's urban chronicles there is a relatively clear distinction between the local and the global, (5) and if in Alberto Fuguet's narrative there is a patent confirmation of the cultural transformations brought about by globalization especially among the affluent members of Chile's capital, (6) in Eltit's novels we witness the trajectory from what might be called a "national-Chile" to a "post-national nation." My analysis centers its attention foremost on Jamas el fuego nunca (2007) and Impuesto a la carne, even though it also alludes, in passing, to Mano de obra. First, however, a brief overview of some critical assessments concerning spatial representation in Eltit's previous narrative output is warranted.

Attention has been brought to the presence of "no-exit" type spaces, or "anti-espacios" (Olea, "El cuerpo" 89), in Eltit's works, as well as to "[e]l problema de los limites" (Kirkpatrick 42) that characterizes her aesthetics of space. One critic underscores the nefarious effects that power and violence have upon interpersonal relationships in general, and between mother and son or mother and daughter in particular, at the very heart of the private sphere of the home (Llanos 110). Regarding "la plaza" in Lumperica (1983), Eltit's first novel, some have seen it as an essentially ritualistic and sacred site for the construction of a new type of community, the community of the socially and politically destitute (Tafra 49; Avelar 170), while others, on the contrary, have seen it as "una metafora de la comunidad ausente" (Ortega 53) and even as a prison (Brito, Campos 122) where public space has been colonized by "el luminoso" (Donoso 255). Concerning Por la patria (1986), Eltit's second novel, the multiple geographies that populate the text, that is, "el bar," "el erial," "el barrio," and "el galpon" have been construed, metaphorically, as propitious spaces to build a Latin American feminine identity (Arrate 150). A novel which "effectively writes a marginal space" (Tierney-Tello 105) according to one critic, it presents real spaces, such as "el bar," for example, as either a site for the development of subaltern power (Tierney-Tello 126) or as a "trinchera" (Tafra 53) of freedom and resistance. For Raquel Olea, who follows French anthropologist Marc Auge's notion of "places" and "non-places," "el bar," but also "el barrio," stand in direct opposition to "el super" in Mano de obra ("El deseo" 101). Symbolically, the title of Eltit's third novel, El cuarto mundo (1988), could arguably stand for the territory par excellence of all the inhabitants of her literary cosmos, either as (degraded) reality or as utopia. One critic construes this space principally as a psychic locale, emphasizing a movement that stretches from the intrauterine site of the twins all the way to the South American continent (Tafra 79, 82). Gisela Norat, conceives of the uterus as "a space subject to patriarchal assault" (124), for it is the male, and not the female twin, who narrates their conception. Rodrigo Canovas, for his part, understands the uterine space as "un taller literario" in the sense that "[l]a maternidad, condicion biologica, se desplaza hacia la escritura" (27-28).

With respect to El padre mio (1989), Eltit's fascinating testimonial text in which a schizophrenic individual provides, paradoxically, some of the first true accounts of the consequences of neoliberal politics upon Chilean society, one critic is correct to assert that it is precisely from "el borde" (Malverde 161) that subaltern speech reaches its full potential. Similarly to El cuarto mundo, the private space of mother and son in Los vigilantes (1994), Eltit's fifth novel, has been examined as a process through which female subjectivity internalizes, both psychically and physically, the entire gamut of repressive forces imposed upon her by patriarchy (Medina-Sancho 149). In regards to Los trabajadores de la muerte (1998), her sixth novel, while it is true that a movement back and forth between the inside and the outside characterizes the text's spatial dynamics (Olea, "El deseo" 95), it is equally evident, as Francine Masiello has noted, that in this work Eltit "revisits sites of congregation" (207) and "takes us to a more archaic sense of the public space when the market was the center of the polis" (214). Finally, concerning Mano de obra, the author's seventh novel, various interesting statements have been put forward. One critic, for example, underlines not only the lack of "public sphere" in the text but calls the supermarket, appropriately in my judgment, "a Wal-Mart-like superstore" (Lynd 16, 23). For Olea, "el super," which she calls "templo panoptico del poder del consumo" ("El deseo" 99), represents "un espacio de pseudoneutralidad donde se debilitan las fronteras de lo publico y lo privado y de las identificaciones sociales" (97), while Michael Lazzara calls it "un espacio hiperracionalizado, serializado y panoptico" (158). Another critic comments on the erasing of spatial frontiers in Mano de obra, alluding to how the logic of the market has colonized even the house where the workers live (Carreno 147-48), a site which Eugenia Brito has called "casa antropofagica" ("Utopia" 30).

These are some of the critical appraisals of spatial representation in Eltit's novels. Let us now trace the gradual penetration of neoliberalism in national space in her first texts, and then move to the analysis of Mano de obra, Jamas el fuego nunca and Impuesto a la carne. Not only written under dictatorship but also portraying a country under siege, in both Lumperica and Por la patria the opposition own/foreign, or national/ transnational, is presented in clearly racial terms, particularly in the latter. In both, however, the national forcefully resists and triumphs in the end. "El luminoso" in Lumperica, a metaphor not only for the ubiquitous presence of state control but also one for the market, hovers over "L. Iluminada," "los palidos" and "los desharrapados" in a "plaza" located in "Santiago de Chile" (131)--mentioned a few times in the story (9, 84, 120)--, but is unable to dominate them. The dichotomy national/foreign is especially palpable in the following lines: "Porque el luminoso no se detendria. Estaba programado para la noche y su programacion no tenia la racionalidad de Chile que paraba su ritmo nocturno" (212). The racial binary is even more pronounced in Por la patria, as just stated. "Zarco" and "eslavo," prevalent throughout the text, allude not only to fair skin but also to the military in power, as in the expression "uniformados eslavos" (213). What is interesting in this novel, nonetheless, and what complicates matters to some extent, is that if some women in the story seek to defeat the "eslavos," others feel attracted to them (271) and do not wish to be Chilean--"no quiero ser mas chilena" (106). This statement in the text, "loca que queria gringo fuerte y eficaz" (158), stands in contrast to "eran oscuros, morenos, chilenos, escurridizos y traidores" (92) and "mi cara imperfecta, mis rasgos oscuros, mis crenchas" (273). In El cuarto mundo, what stands for the national is the term "sudaca," a pejorative expression with clear racial overtones that appears in the text variously as "jovenes sudacas" (52), "familia sudaca" (110), "estigma sudaca" (123, 145, 150), "nuestra raza sudaca" (126), "especie sudaca" (152), etc. Initially, one gets the impression that it is the city, described as dangerous and hostile, that threatens the integrity of "la familia sudaca." Toward the end of the story, however, one learns that what comes to drastically transform "la especie sudaca" is "la nacion mas famosa y poderosa del mundo" (130), never mentioned by name in the novel but clearly referring to the arrival of neoliberalism:

Afuera la ciudad devastada emite grunidos ... Se ensayan todas las retoricas esperando el dinero caido del cielo ... En venta los campos de la ciudad sudaca. En venta el sudor ... Solo el nombre de la ciudad permanece, porque todo lo demas ya se ha vendido en el amplio mercado ... y en el dinero caido del cielo esta impresa, nitidamente, una sonrisa de menosprecio a la raza sudaca. (158-59)

A somber depiction of the city is also manifest in Vaca sagrada, where "un virus helado" (155) permeates the environment. Even though, unlike in El cuarto mundo, there is no direct allusion to neoliberalism, there are references to some of its consequences, such as unemployment and increasing vigilance. In Los vigilantes, published during Chile's transition period (19902010), Eltit once again frames the own/foreign, national/neoliberal in terms of a binary. But instead of framing it along racial lines, she does so in terms of cultural and economic lines, opposing "vida occidental" (30), "perfeccion occidental," "belleza occidental" (49)--as well as "el Occidente" (88) in general--to "edificios publicos," "sitios eriazos," "vagabundaje urbano" (92), "las orillas de Occidente" (107) and "este Occidente secundario" (109). It is precisely this "vida occidental" which seems to have occupied the public sphere in Los trabajadores de la muerte, as is particularly evident in the first and last sections of the novel. Although Masiello's point that Eltit takes the reader "to a more archaic sense of the public space" is well-taken, another way of viewing the saturation of the streets with "vitrinas" (190), "ratones electronicos," "aranas electricas" (191) and myriads of objects of consumption, is to conclude that, contrary to Hernando de Soto's paean to the informal economy in his now classic El otro sendero (1987), the imposition of free-market measures at any cost can only create a parallel, fragile and extremely unstable economic existence for many. In the novel not only are the street merchants carefully scrutinized by video cameras but the police also irrupt into their space and proceed to destroy their products.

The tension that had characterized Eltit's narrative between a national inside that resisted and a transnational or neoliberal outside that persisted, begins to disappear in Mano de obra. Indeed, here, there is neither an outside nor an inside. It was clear by 2002 that the governments of the Transition, including that of socialist Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006), were not going to alter the free-market mechanisms imposed by Pinochet by force. Chile had become, to use Luis Carcamo-Huechante's apt phrase, a "nacion-mercado" ("Hacia" 99). (7) To dramatize this situation, Eltit writes a text where the super market becomes an incontrovertible metaphor for Chile. No words illustrate this more pointedly than when the homodiegetic narrator of the first part declares: "El super es como mi segunda casa" (71). In Mano de obra, space is not an affront to neoliberalism; it is neoliberalism. If in earlier works national space struggled against the ever menacing intromission of external forces, in Mano de obra it is the subaltern subject itself that contributes to the correct functioning of neoliberalism, as when, for example, Gloria accuses Alberto of wanting to create a union in the second part of the novel, or when Enrique, "[m]as alto que cualquiera de nosotros. Su piel era mucho mas blanca" (102), becomes one of the supermarket's managers.

The presence of a dialectical space, nevertheless, becomes prominent again in Jamas el fuego nunca, but not in the liberating sense of Lumperica or the redeeming sense of Por la patria. The own or national in the text, epitomized as a "celula muerta" (79), appears as utterly defeated and even outside of history. The novel's focalization centers specifically on a couple of former members of a leftist organization who live clandestinely and who barely eke out an existence. In essence, three different locales stand out in Jamas el fuego nunca: the dilapidated windowless house of the couple, the homes of the elderly which the female homodiegetic narrator visits, and the city, referred to as "una ciudad verdaderamente moderna y colapsada" (154). None of these, however, constitutes a productive space, as does "el bar" in Por la patria and even the house in Los vigilantes. Certainly, there is an inside and an outside, but neither is a locus of resistance. In Jamas el fuego nunca, without succumbing to the right but voicing a harsh critique of the radical left, Eltit depicts a situation of political stasis with no way out. The male member of the "cupula," for example, spends most of his time in bed, "enroscado" (35), turned into an "ovillo" (61), sharing with the interpellating narrative voice "el estrecho colchon arruinado" (34) and living on a daily ration of rice and tea. The female narrative voice, for its part, leaves the house a few days a week not only to find a street that seems a "jeroglifico" (62) and that "se torna irreconocible cada dia" (115) but also to wash the bodies of very old people who are not always accommodating. Certain signs in the text might give one the impression that, in reality, this is a novel that welcomes modernity's advances, as when, for instance, the narrative voice appears repentant for having relinquished owning a television set and a calculator, or when she was seduced by a red dress she saw in a clothing store. Nonetheless, the times she does venture into the streets, streets "custodiadas por ojos tecnicos" (102), she runs into crime, violence and theft: "Desvalijan, desvalijan, desvalijan" (145), states the narrator. In this novel, there is simply no space to confront neoliberalism.

Finally, in Impuesto a la carne, space has literally become a sick place, a hospital--an allegory for Chile, certainly--where a mother and a daughter, await the arrival of the country's bicentennial as they also get ready to sell some of their organs. Whether, as Dianna Niebyski contends, Impuesto a la carne constitutes "a record of the marginal or excluded body in pain" (107), or a work where the Chilean author ruminates her preoccupations regarding "the future of human bodies in our age of DNA experimentation" and "quick organ transplants" (116), the fact remains that, as in previous novels, the contrast national/foreign appears in clearly racial terms. If mother and daughter are described by one of the doctors as "[b]ajas/feas/seriadas" (25) and "demasiado morenas" (33), and if the homodiegetic narrator refers to one of the doctors as "bajo, comun, opaco, nacional" (27), there is also allusion to "[u]n medico blanco, frio, metalico" (13) and, later, reference to "una mujer muy correcta, mas alta que nosotras" (176). Repeatedly, "pais," "nacion," "territorio" and "hospital" appear as interchangeable terms, conveying the idea that, as much as mother and daughter speak of liberating themselves after two hundred years of oppression, contesting economic exploitation becomes impossible. What's more, in a space thoroughly colonized by the market, "un territorio que me saca sangre, me saca sangre, me saca sangre" (80), the only way out becomes, precisely, to sell one's organs.

As we have seen, then, Eltit's narrative project covers the entire "suelo chileno" (Impuesto 116), from the "plaza" to the house, from the "bar" to the "barrio," from the "super" to the "hospital." Although I have not answered the question as to why her literary cartography is almost always drawn in racial terms, what is indisputable is that national space is presented as being constantly menaced by a transnational force. But has this ever been different in Chile or Latin America? At the same time, might it be possible to transcend this spatial dichotomy and to reflect a world where the lines between national and neoliberal geographies are not as marked as they once were?


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J. Agustin Pasten B.

North Carolina State University

(1) Bernal Diaz's authorship has been recently put into question by French historian Christian Duverger.

(2) Joseph Nicephore Niepce's "View from the window at Le Gras" (1826).

(3) I am referring to novels such as El cuarto mundo, Vaca sagrada, Los vigilantes and Jamas el fuego nunca, but also to Mano de obra and Impuesto a la carne.

(4) The precariousness of the subaltern subject, the marginalization of women, the body as the site of struggle between the personal and the political, among others.

(5) Although, to be sure, space in general becomes somewhat more diffuse in his last collection of chronicles, Hablame de amores.

(6) See my article on Fuguet and Lemebel.

(7) In Tramas del mercado, Carcamo-Huechante offers an excellent analysis of how this process took place in Chile.
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Author:Pasten B., J. Agustin
Publication:Romance Notes
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Geographic Code:3CHIL
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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