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The Burden of Modernity: The Rhetoric of Cultural Discourse in Spanish America
Theory and Cultural Studies
Carlos Alonso. The Burden of Modernity: The Rhetoric of Cultural Discourse in Spanish America. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. x + 227 pp.
Carlos Alonso's latest contribution to the field of Spanish American literary and cultural studies is as engaging as it is intellectually stimulating. The controversial aspect of the book is--nothing less--the notion the author draws of modernity, by definition a critical and problematic issue among specialists in this "underdeveloped" area of the western world, a culturally and socially hybrid region, as Nestor García Canclini well synthesized.
Alonso's The Burden of Modernity proposes the fascinating idea that Spanish American literati, to be considered modern in their countries, needed to authorize or legitimize their work as equal to the prestigious western or European works. The writers managed, at the same time, to legitimize an autochthonous national originality. The tension between the original and the European model was inevitable. Creoles needed during colonial times a narrative of futurity as an ideological justification to contest Spanish hegemony; emancipation took place but intellectuals "moved to assert their specificity" using "a rhetoric that unavoidably reinforced the cultural myths of metropolitan superiority." His thesis is not completely new--previous critical approaches to Facundo: Civilización y barbarie by Domingo F. Sarmiento, for instance, referred to the double mechanism of quotation/appropriation of European culture and mediation with the local--but Alonso's explanations develop it with broader meanings and an impressively thorough methodology. [End Page 559]
Alonso, author of The Spanish American Regional Novel: Modernity and Autochthony, has produced once more a book that will be an obligatory reference to the topic. His work is rigorous, rousing, and clear. The impeccable structure of the introduction, "Modernity as Ideal and Curse," is followed by four chapters dedicated to modernity as it is seen in Sarmiento's work, in the Cuban Antislavery Novel, and in the short stories of Lucio Mansilla and Horacio Quiroga. The last two chapters examine postmodernity in Mario Vargas Llosa's La tía Julia y el escribidor, Gabriel García Márquez's El general en su laberinto, and Carlos Fuentes's La campaña. The book ends with an epilogue that adds to the author's idea of modernity and resumes the main arguments of the whole work.
Alonso is at his best when he approaches the texts within a psychoanalytical framework. His interpretations of the oedipal aspects of Una excursión a los indios ranqueles and of Vargas Llosa's novel are truly remarkable. Chapter 5, "Death and Resurrections," also contains a memorable analysis of the deep influence of death in Quiroga's aesthetics, an idea earlier suggested by Noé Jitrik, but admirably developed by Alonso.
The claims made in The Burden of Modernity are supported both by theory and demonstrations. However, its apolitical and/or a-economical approach might be debated. What other critics see as a postcolonial, neocolonial, or dependency phenomena, Alonso calls modernity. His line of inquiry is generally appropriate, his process of thought is thorough and always intelligent, but as Foucault would say, quoting Shakespeare, naming is already a content.
Both modernity and postmodernity are contested terms once applied to the hemisphere; no reader is capable of approaching these terms without pre-established positions. Alonso takes his chances and gives in this book an insightful analysis of the chosen matter. One reads The Burden of Modernity agreeing and disagreeing alternatively, but maybe this is the best a book can produce: a reader arguing with the text, actively confronting his or her own views with those of this sharp and strong author, writing notes in the margins, learning and going back to start the discussion again, unable to ignore it.