Modern Fiction Studies 46.4 (2000) 1017-1024
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Conjunctions, Disjunctions: Similar Goals, Contradictory Strategies
Linda J. Craft. Novels of Testimony and Resistance from Central America. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1997. x + 237 pp.
Naomi Lindstrom. The Social Conscience of Latin American Writing. Austin: U of Texas P, 1998. 187 pp.
Two different authors with vastly different trajectories have recently taken parallel, though by no means identical, approaches to the ongoing process of retracing and redefining the elusive nature of Central and Latin American textuality. Indeed, despite their contrasts, what both make clear is that rethinking Central and Latin American literature is very much a capital concern in our day, as the validity of literary discourse and of traditional ways of defining literature has been seriously questioned by some contemporary methodological approaches. From what we could euphemistically call a "postmodern perspective," the new rage in Central and Latin American literature is to challenge the institution of literature itself, its ends and means, and problematize its relationship to power. For both Craft and Lindstrom, despite its precarious or contingent role, the key question about literature still is, what kind of [End Page 1017] document is a particular text (novel or testimonial), and how does it relate both to history and to fiction?
Linda Craft's first book, Novels of Testimony and Resistance from Central America, is an adaptation of her dissertation work. Naomi Lindstrom's The Social Conscience of Latin American Writing is a mature reflection of a professor from the University of Texas who pioneered the reconversion of literary analysis from its traditional empirical approaches to the theoretical focus that presently dominates literary criticism. Both outlooks are different, yet at the same time, both are emblematic of the current debate on the canon, and of an estrangement from it.
Craft traces the problematics of speaking of a Latin American literary history to reconfigure Central American literary production in Novels of Testimony and Resistance from Central America. She employs the singularity of this region's historical and political context to justify the rise of a new hybrid literary form. She calls this form "the testimonial novel," a category whose presence is felt primarily in Central America. Craft begins by briefly describing the impact that Rigoberta Menchú's testimonial has had and proceeds to discuss the importance of bringing forth subaltern voices, which through the testimonial form succeed in creating an ethical sense of obligation in the reader. She then states that "we must also deal with issues of historiography and artistic elaboration, the tensions between ethics and aesthetics, the role of the author, and the economics of production" if we seriously mean to take into consideration the dynamics of subaltern culture. From her perspective, this problematic raises an issue pertaining to the nature of genre: At what moment can we say that a particular textual form actually becomes a "historical novel" rather than a testimonial? In other words, instead of questioning the "bourgeois" nature of novelistic production as Beverley has done, Craft takes the opposite approach: focusing on the nature of genre, she questions whether what have been called "novels" in Central America actually are so.
From within that perspective, she proceeds to formulate characteristics from the testimonial to explore how they function in these novels that for her are more like hybrids, a mixture of both the testimonial and the novel, even when labeled as the latter. She argues that the primary function of testimonial discourse is the "self-representation" of the Other--peasants, indigenous people, women, children, homosexuals, [End Page 1018] the poor, political prisoners, guerrilla fighters; in short, subaltern culture. From that perspective, she proceeds to examine the degree to which the Other is in fact not only a contingent presence, but a dominant perspective from a narrative point of view in Central American novels. Raising the question of how subjectivity is constructed, she wonders what these configurations, often made through the abjection and erasure of the subject's agency, can and must do to enter in a particular literary space of representation and how these linguistic transpositions take place.
Craft's chapter titled...