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Lois Parkinson Zamora. The Usable Past: The Imagination of History in Recent Fiction of the Americas. New York: Cambridge UP, 1997. xiii + 257 pp.

This comparative study investigates the attitude toward history in several twentieth-century United States and Latin American novels and short stories. Zamora argues that, in spite of different philosophical influences in the former Spanish and British colonies, there are important similarities (as well as differences) in the ways in which their authors represent history and community. Instead of manifesting an anxiety of influence, as do modern European authors in search of originality, American authors (Zamora uses the term “American” in a hemispheric sense) search for precursors in their desire to establish a usable past, that is, acceptable sources of cultural authority and communal coherence. European theories of postmodernism thus cannot be applied mechanically to the fiction of the Americas.

In the first chapter, Zamora discusses the presence of the indigenous past in novels by Willa Cather and Carlos Fuentes. The second chapter, in which Zamora analyzes novels such as Fuentes’s The Old Gringo and Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World, focuses on the differences between North American and Latin American attitudes toward journalistic writing. Whereas U.S. writers usually shunned journalism and preferred to depict the human condition in general rather than current political events, Latin American authors were often journalists and explicitly addressed social and political issues in their fiction. In the third chapter, North American romance and Latin American magical realism (which Zamora considers a “recent flowering” of the romance tradition) are described as critical of the Cartesian conception of consciousness and of modern Western assumptions about reality as knowable. The fictions of Elena Garro, Juan Rulfo, and William Goyen, for example, question binary distinctions and present fictional worlds in which the natural coexists with the supernatural. In spite of their emphasis on the universal and archetypal, however, they also stress the importance of community, although magical realism criticizes contemporary political issues more explicitly. New World counterrealist narrative modes manifest what Zamora calls the “Ancestral impulse,” which privileges the oral tradition. She argues that this should be seen as a complement to the “Archival impulse,” which relies on [End Page 1017] written records. Partly because of differences in the respective literary traditions of the U.S. and Latin America, “ancestral presences” (ghosts and spirits) in counterrealist U.S. fiction lead to communal integration, while in the more subversive Latin American magical realism they cannot prevent the disintegration of society.

In part two, Zamora argues that Latin American writers consciously integrate diverse cultural traditions, but that their explicit intertextuality differs from postmodern pastiche and parody because they wish to create a usable past and foster community. Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral, for example, illustrates the heterogeneity of Latin American society and constitutes an attempt at including divergent cultural traditions and multiple perspectives, as well as a challenge to linear views of history. Contrary to the European modernists, who also used contrapuntal narrative structures, Latin American fictions remain open-ended and relinquish the desire for unity. Even certain U.S. writers, such as Faulkner, used synchronic strategies not so much to suggest different psychological processes as to encompass the diverse histories of the community. In chapter 5, Zamora analyzes several “fragmentary fictions” of the Americas, such as Sandra Cisneros’s Woman Hollering Creek, as “magic encyclopedias in their compulsion to remember and include” forgotten pasts and marginal cultures. According to Zamora, poststructuralist theory cannot account for the integration of cultural traditions in the fiction of the Americas, since these traditions are questioned, adapted, and conserved instead of simply transgressed or deconstructed. In the sixth chapter, Zamora discusses several contemporary Latin American novels that use popular language, mass culture, and stereotypes in their representation of community and their construction of communal values. They thus aim at subverting the boundaries between the literary and the popular (in the sense of lower-class).

Zamora concludes that the importance of community in the fictions of the Americas leads to the creation of archetypal characters driven by collective histories, synchronic structures that totalize (without homogenizing) the various cultural...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 1017-1019
Launched on MUSE
1998-12-01
Open Access
No
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