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En Cuerpo y Alma.

Starting with Lazarillo de Tormes, autobiographical fiction has had a long and successful history in Hispanic literature. The genre works best when the mature narrator distances himself from the youngster he once was. Sometimes, as at the beginning of Lazarillo, the narrator depicts his former self as a candid, imprudent child who must learn the ropes in order to survive. Sometimes, as in Mateo Aleman's Guzman de Alfarache, he depicts himself as a ruffian whose failures eventually lead to personal insight and reform. There are countless variants, but whatever approach the author takes, the autobiographical format allows him or her to reflect on society, to expose flaws in the culture, and to show how individuals grow and come to terms with themselves. Unfortunately, En cuerpo y alma accomplishes none of this.

This whiny, self-righteous memoir masquerading as a novel recounts the adventures of a young Mexican girl who spends a year in a private women's college near Berkeley, California, in the 1960s. Arriving in the United States by bus, the young Mexican is appalled to see separate bathrooms for Blacks and Whites at the station, which triggers a vapid, sanctimonious sermon on Justice for All. She appears not to be cognizant of the fact that millions of North Americans are as appalled as she by racism and that at this very moment the United States is engaged in a great civil rights struggle. In spite of her indignation, she cannot resist making a few snide remarks herself about the one Black girl in her dorm or expressing her astonishment that some of the Black children she has been asked to tutor are good in math. She also finds it necessary to mention that even though she is Mexican, she doesn't look it.

In the hands of a more accomplished writer, this might have been the sensitive portrait of an outsider who uses aloofness as a defense against an unfathomable foreign culture. However, Mansour brings no depth, insight or tension to her story. There is no mention of the protagonist's trying to learn English, struggling to understand U.S. customs, striving to make friends, or grappling with her studies. Under the circumstances, it is hard to feel sorry for this sniveling teenager who is attending college on a scholarship and enjoys excursions to San Francisco, poetry sessions at Berkeley, dance lessons, and the opera. En cuerpo y alma doesn't even offer a penetrating view of the 60s, for there is no mention of the domestic and international conflicts that shaped the period.

The protagonist does mention other people superficially--Christine, the cellist; Sabrina, an ageless woman; Susan, a girl with whom she visits porno stores and later moves to Tiburon--but she is not interested in them enough to develop them as characters. She is involved with a man identified as tu, "you," but never tells us much about him, either. On the other hand, she emotes endlessly about dance, Martha Graham, the auras that surround people, and feet: "Feet are a part of the body with their own character. They tend, for some strange reason, to separate themselves from the rest of the body. They're down there, usually hidden, they sweat on their own, they smell differently from the rest of the skin..."

An ounce of humor would have done wonders for this book. Authors such as Edward Rivera (Family Installments) and Oscar Hijuelos (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love) have known how to exploit the funny side of getting along in a new culture, thereby creating loveable characters who awaken our compassion. If Monica Mansour had portrayed her protagonist as a smug but bungling adolescent who took herself much too seriously, we might be able to identify with her. After all, we were all smug and bungling adolescents once upon a time.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:In Body and Soul
Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Magic Eyes: Scenes from an Andean Girlhood.
Next Article:Yo soy la Rumba.

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