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Reviewed by:
Georg Gugelberger, ed. The Real Thing: Testimonial Discourse and Latin America. Durham: Duke UP, 1996. 316 pp.

Much of the essence of what is so timely debated in Georg Gugelberger’s The Real Thing: Testimonial Discourse and Latin America was captured not long ago by my 73-year old father, who sent me a 25-page, hand-written document about his years living as an illegal alien in New York, an installment of the writings he is doing about his own life. Whether or not he is partaking of a tradition of autobiographical discourse, what Frederic Jameson calls the “nameless experience of social isolation . . . given the name of bourgeois subjectivity, of the personality of the ego,” it is curious that the spirit, apprehensions, and expectations of testimonialistas inform his saying that,

In this caravan of memories, there are many passages whose importance I cannot elucidate. . . . I try to relate to you these events almost as they were, let me say that with little concordance and with the little schooling I had: I beg you to overlook my mistakes, both in grammar and spelling. I hope that you can read these lines without critical intent or anything like it.

His text, which in the last analysis confirms a sharp, socio-political critique of alien life in the metropolis, can be juxtaposed, or complemented, with recent declarations by the renowned Lacanian psychologist Jean Laplanche, according to whom his practice of psychological theory is in no way equivalent to talking about politics. Fear, insecurities, interpretation, identity, mediation, translation, appropriation, class, alienation, theorization, selection, oppression, and the political or the apolitical are some of the issues that derive from what these [End Page 424] two people tell us. And it is to the heart of such concerns, as they apply to testimonio and to Latin American literature, that Gugelberger’s edition directs its analytical insights.

These insights, however, are not concerned mainly with the enunciating subjects or with the goals of testimonios. On the contrary, they concentrate on the North American critics of testimonio, on the practice of Latinamericanist critical thought, and on what Michael Kearney, using the equivalent term to the Spanish “estadounidense” in order to counterweight the historical and socio-political misuse of the word “American,” calls “Unitedstatian” institutions. It could be said that the text as a whole is a sustained meditation on the role, the principles, and positionality of these intellectuals and the entities within which they function. As such, the book selects texts that address not only “the early stages of the debate [about testimonio ] but also the ‘sliding into the beyond’ of testimonial discourse during the early and mid-nineties.” In fact, the various documents trace the path from an initial moment of almost unbridled critical enthusiasm, characterized by what Gareth Williams terms as “the constitutive naivete that seems to have grounded much of our treatment of subaltern cultural production,” to a stage of reflexivity, indeed self-reflexivity, in which the critics who engage testimonio question not only themselves, but the relevance and possible demise of the genre of testimonio itself.

Perchance intentionally, the collection of essays presents the readers with a quasi-circular construct that brings to mind the uncertain spirals of Borges’s impossible library. It is the presence of John Beverley that marks the two points of the spiral that the book seems to follow. The path starts with his delineation of testimonio as the champion of an iconoclastic position, “a new form of narrative literature in which we can at the same time witness and be part of the emerging culture of an international proletarian/popular democratic subject in its period of ascendancy,” a novel form articulated within the framework of the dyad margin-center. It ends, uncharacteristically for these postmodern times, in a nostalgia-laden tone that questions “What is left today of the desire called testimonio?” and leaves the reader with only one final word to grasp onto: Chiapas.

The common and twisted thread that ties these two articulations is the preoccupation with the original “we” and the final frustrated “desire” that Beverley mentions. Critics of testimonio certainly desire [End Page 425] to understand and...

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