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The Culture of Fiction in the Works of Manuel Zapata Olivella.

Yvonne Captain-Hidalgo. The Culture of Fiction in the Works of Manuel Zapata Olivella. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1993. 193 pp. $34.95.

This wide-ranging yet tightly focused volume brings a rich array of critical perspectives to bear on the fiction of the contemporary Afro-Colombian author Manuel Zapata Olivella. In a brief preface, critic Yvonne Captain-Hidalgo describes her perspective as "post-revisionist." This seems in part to mean that she has adopted the kind of premises from contemporary "post-" theory that have played a significant role in Afro-American "vanguard" criticism (i.e., work by Houston Baker and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.), and many of which cluster today under the "cultural studies" umbrella. This is one explanation for the otherwise enigmatic title The Culture of Fiction in the Work of Manuel Zapata Olivella.

This approach serves well the purpose of moving Afro-Hispanic criticism beyond the generally conservative and even provincial approach that has characterized this, "doubly colonized" field. It also highlights certain striking parallels between recent advances in scholarship on Afro-Hispanic literature and the progress of mainstream Spanish-American literature through the apogee and aftermath of its infamous "boom" in the 1960s. Captain-Hidalgo has exploited this "boom" precedent to particular effect; indeed, her preface reveals that the title originally projected for the volume was "Parallel Dimensions in Literary History."

Post-revisionist here also means, however, that Captain-Hidalgo does not employ these new premises and precedents without some considered reservation. Clearly, she is concerned to remain faithful to Afro-Hispanic literature's "difference," its autonomous sources and traditions. And she wants to counter any potential threats of tokenization and appropriation, whether from a sophisticated, "metropolitan" Afro-Americanist avant-garde, or from a Spanish American mainstream represented by such "boom" authors as Colombia's own Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Thus, across the volume Captain-Hidalgo in fact makes strategic use of all the basic modes of Afro-Hispanic criticism that Richard Jackson has termed the traditional, the avant-garde, and the militantly Afrocentrist. No small part of the volume's compelling interest arises from the negotiations it enacts among Afro-Hispanic literature's various allegiances and imperatives.

The work of Manuel Zapata Olivella certainly makes a propitious focus for a volume that would bring Afro-Hispanic literature to a larger audience, and give to the issue of that literature's status and identity a fresh articulation. An exemplary Afro-Hispanic and Latin American figure, Zapata has always given issues of race and ethnicity a frank and unencumbered treatment, even while he has refused them any categorical privilege. Over the half-century it now spans--from Tierra Mojada (The Bottoms [1947]) to La calle 10 (Tenth Street [1960]) to Chango, el gran putas (Shango, the Holy (Mother)Fucker, or Shango, the Baddest Dude [1983]) and beyond--Zapata's fiction has embodied a wide range of approaches to the representation of Afro-Hispanic experience. Still, Captain-Hidalgo must grapple with the question of how to address the study of an author who is hardly well-known in the United States--to date just two novels from the 1960s have seen English translation (A Saint is Born in Chima and Chambacu, Black Slum)--and whose work, even in its Colombian and Latin American contexts, has never attained unqualified acceptance.

Captain-Hidalgo divides the body of her volume into three major parts that could easily be read as separate essays. Their order roughly follows the lead established by the historical trajectory of Zapata's fiction, but Captain-Hidalgo exercises considerable critical independence: Each part adheres to a distinct set of basic theoretical assumptions; each defines and explores a different problem or issue; and each essays a discrete and successively broader contextualization of Zapata's fiction.

Part One, "The Zapata Paradigm: Stasis and Incomplete Rupture," discusses Zapata's early novels in the "intrinsic" context of his work as a whole. Captain-Hidalgo here vigorously argues for the fiction's constancy and continuity, though the terms from structuralist poetics and deconstructive intertextuality in which she couches this defense somewhat undercut her emphasis on the texts' cultural and historical grounding. For Captain-Hidalgo, nonetheless, this constancy's essential ingredients are an unwavering commitment to social justice, an attention to structures of belief, and an emphasis on the material effects of culture.

Part Two, "Realism Reconsidered," takes a more historical approach: It focuses on point of view in key Zapata novels from the 1960s and examines their pertinence for debates on the practice of social realism in the twentieth century. On the one hand, Captain-Hidalgo would vindicate social realism, and she celebrates its prominence in Zapata's fiction. In a position reminiscent of Fredric Jameson's much-debated description of Third World literature as "national allegory," she even subscribes to the polemic notion that realism has particular pertinence for subaltern literatures. Yet Part Two also demonstrates how, over time, Zapata progressively adds texture to his work by reducing the editorial mediations of the omniscient narrator and giving an increasingly direct voice to individual characters.

If up to this point Captain-Hidalgo has minimized the distinctiveness of Zapata's widely acknowledged masterwork, Chango, el gran putas, she dedicates Part Three almost exclusively to this 1983 novel that for many marks a significant new direction in Zapata's fiction, with its mythic and epic proportions, its experimental form, and its transnational treatment of the African Diaspora in America. Captain-Hidalgo cogently meditates on the alternative perspective Afro-Hispanics brings to fundamental issues in world history, socio-politics, and culture in the chapter "Zapata in the African-American Tradition," as throughout this part of the volume she critically examines more aggressively the Afrocentric focus of Chango, el gran putas. At times Captain-Hidalgo's acute discriminations disconcertingly muddle her positions, as when her deconstructionist leanings seem to locate the culture of Zapata's Shango figure in Africa, in Europe, and in the New World all at once (134-51). Still, most of her carefully balanced conclusions will prove hard to refute:

One final observation about the Afro-Colombian's literature is the paradox

that he belongs to so many categories of understanding while, at the same

time, he is separate from the ideas that most of us hold about these very

categories. The West is an integral part of all his discourse, yet people not

directly of European descent figure prominently in that dialogue.

He openly proclaims himself to be mulatto, yet several of his novels ...

project a militantly black self. Race is not important to him, yet the

African American becomes the symbol of mankind's suffering. (165)

Captain-Hidalgo's insistence on the continuity of Zapata's fiction notwithstanding, her volume's three-part structure dramatically embodies the self-critical evolution of Zapata's fiction as it gradually leaves behind standard social realism, eventually to arrive at a much greater thematic, technical, and ideological complexity. On the downside, however, the strict conceptual and thematic independence of the volume's parts tends to fragment the author's work and so somewhat to diminish the volume's usefulness as a thorough introduction for the uninitiated. Particularly disappointing, in the case of this multifaceted intellectual--Zapata's professional activities have encompassed anthropology, psychiatry, and journalism--is the limited attention Captain-Hidalgo is able to give to the interface between Zapata's fiction and his extensive non-fictional writings, which include travel writing, autobiography, and works of socio-cultural analysis. The sheer breadth of the contextualizations the volume assays largely precludes this, and indeed their sweep sometimes seems to leave the author's work to stand or fall on its abstractly "universal" merits, as tends to happen in the brief conclusion, "Toward A Theorem for Zapata," whose title rather overstates its case.

Captain-Hidalgo's eclectic deployment of theories and methods also yields mixed results. On the one hand, her "post-revisionism" incisively challenges illusions of any simple or ideal hierarchy in Zapata's work between orality and literacy, realism and its others, or an "inside" (Afrocentric) and an "outside" (Eurocentric) perspective on Afro-Hispanic experience. But the volume's eclecticism can also produce some rather mystifying and idiosyncratic turns of critical phrase. I still wonder, for example, exactly how one "renders style through thematics" (7) or what of substance is really conveyed in the concept of Zapata's "aesthetics of the downtrodden." Even the volume's title succumbs to these difficulties: "The culture of fiction" suggests to me some kind of (post)modernist metafictional project emphasizing the autonomy of the literary, not the deep-rooted importance of "culture" in Zapata's work that Captain-Hidalgo evidently intended.

Whatever its limitations, The Culture of Fiction in the Work of Manuel Zapata Olivella admirably succeeds in addressing the needs of each of its several audiences, for most of whom, even in specialist spheres, the breadth and depth of Afro-Hispanic literature remain sorely underappreciated. The validation this handsome volume gives Afro-Hispanic literature easily justifies its publication. But the volume's larger value, with its synthetic perspectives and concentric contextualizations, lies in the more active and more reciprocal inter- (Afro-) American dialogue it seeks to propitiate.
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Author:Bell, Steven M.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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