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Reviewed by:
  • The Anthropological Imagination in Latin American Literature
  • Carlos J. Alonso
Amy Fass Emery. The Anthropological Imagination in Latin American Literature. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1997. 156 pp.

When Latin American literary production is surveyed for its reflection of anthropological concerns, one might be tempted to argue that the title of Amy Emery’s book is in fact pleonastic: the anthropological imagination is Latin American literature. Before anthropology became a full-fledged discipline in the second half of the nineteenth century, the historical and cultural specificity of the New World demanded an anthropological perspective to make possible confronting and speaking about it. For in many ways, the essential problem faced by Latin American writers and intellectuals has always been the question of the Other: the Others that inhabit their midst—Indians, Blacks, and gauchos, for example—but also the Other that they themselves once were as Latin Americans to their European metropolitan counterparts. Even in the nineteenth century, when European scientific discourses were appropriated by Latin American writers as analytical instruments, one finds that in fact those discourses were invoked in order to produce a knowledge of the Other that would legitimize its suppression in the formulation and definition of a national state (Domingo F. Sarmiento’s texts being the canonical example). Emery’s book is a valuable study of what happened when this intrinsic quality of Latin American cultural production saw itself reflected in the distorting mirror of anthropological disciplinary discourse, even if she does not address that Otherness with respect to Europe that complicates the appropriation of the anthropological paradigm by Latin American writers.

The author begins with a broad consideration of anthropology that distinguishes between the various sub-genres and discourses it has [End Page 1045] spawned, such as functional anthropology, ethnography, and the field-work diary of cultural anthropology. This discussion not only allows for a nuanced consideration of a series of Latin American literary texts but also provides a fruitful polemic for engaging other critics such as Roberto González Echevarría, who have also argued for the influence of anthropological discourse in modern Latin American literature. Emery claims that it is only by making distinctions in the various discourses that anthropology has produced that one can understand fully its presence and influence in the literature produced in the region, a sensible statement with which one would be hard pressed to disagree.

Emery considers next in quick succession Alejo Carpentier’s ¡Ecué-Yamba-O!, the short stories and novels by José María Arguedas, Miguel Barnet’s Bioqrafía de un cimarrón, Gregorio Martínez’s Canto de sirena, Maíra by Darcy Ribeiro, and Juan José Saer’s El entenado. In her reading of these literary texts, Emery follows the various ways in which their authors position themselves and their writing with respect to the Subject/Other divide that is the crux of anthropological discourse. In Carpentier, one can see a deliberate use of the aestheticization of anthropological thought—what James Clifford has called “ethnographic surrealism”—that marked the avant-garde in the Twenties and Thirties and allowed Carpentier to claim a superiority vis-à-vis European reality. Further, Emery argues convincingly that in a number of his works Arguedas falls back on the anthropological paradigm to deal with unresolved sexual and psychological issues that are evoked in him by the surrounding Indian presence. Emery’s reading of the function of the gaze in Arguedas is a masterful cautionary note to the received idea concerning his unmediated access to—and celebration of—the indigenous.

Next the book engages testimonio in Barnet’s and Martínez’s rendition of it. Emery sees in the displacement from one text to the other the introduction of parody in the genre in a move that questions the assumed transparency of testimonial exchange. Ribeiro’s Maíra and Saer’s El entenado both go on to explode in different fashion the Subject /Other dichotomy. Ribeiro builds his narrative around everything that the subject has repressed in order to constitute the Other as the object of scientific discourse; Saer takes as his point of departure the idea that the Other is a complex, multilayered, and incomplete being, qualities...

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